The Belmont Citizens Forum Newsletter sent questionnaires and received responses via email from candidates for Belmont selectman. Below are the responses from incumbent Mark Paolillo, running for reelection to his third term on the board, and Alexandra Ruban, running for the first time. The election is scheduled for April 5.
Belmont Citizens Forum: The MBTA recently abandoned the idea of a new station on South Pleasant Street. However, the future of Waverley Station is still in question. While Belmont has no authority over how the MBTA addresses accessibility at Waverley and Belmont Center Stations, the town certainly has an interest. Will you try to engage the MBTA on this issue? Could a community path through Waverley Station connecting to an elevated boarding platform be part of the solution?
Mark Paolillo: The MBTA abandonment of the idea of a consolidated new train station on South Pleasant Street was a clear victory for the residents and commuters of Belmont. The Board of Selectmen held two public hearings with residents on this important matter. The last one, on November 16, 2015, included officials from both the MBTA and MassDOT. The purpose of that meeting was to provide updated information about the Waverley Station and potential options to bring the facility into Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance.
Following those meetings the Board sent a letter to Trish Foley, legislative liaison for the MBTA Rail/Transit Division, expressing strong community support for keeping the Waverley Station open and making it ADA compliant. With the help of our state legislators, Senator Brownsberger and Representative Rogers, the Board will continue to engage directly with the MBTA on this critical issue for our town.
Yes, a community path that consists of elevated ramps and platforms at the Waverley Station could potentially be part of the solution to make it ADA compliant. That information, developed by members of the Community Selectman Candidates Answer BCF Questions Path Implementation Advisory Committee, has already been shared with the MBTA.
Alexandra Ruban: The fate of the Waverley and Belmont Center stations are two issues that underscore Belmont’s urgent need of forward-looking and responsible leadership from the Board of Selectmen. Improvement to the Waverley Commuter Rail station in recent years caused the station to lose its grandfathered exemption from the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that the station be wheelchair-accessible.
Like many residents, I was troubled by the MBTA’s proposal to replace Waverley station with a mega-station on Pleasant Street, which would have increased traffic and deprived residents of easy walking access to a station. However, we should not equate getting the MBTA to walk back its plans with “victory.” The MBTA faces serious budget challenges and indicated that it wants to reduce the number of stations on its Fitchburg line. Belmont, with two stations and relatively low ridership at each, is a prime target for consolidation.
One option before the town is to draw on planning work for Waverley Square already completed by our Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee and our Economic Development Committee. This work has yet to be used by the selectmen in advocating for Waverley Square station, but it offers a possible solution: a ramp from the street down to the railbed that is an element of both the community path and proposals for making Waverley Station ADA compliant. Drawing federal and state funding for construction of the path into the mix for the construction of a ramp could substantially alter the MBTA’s calculus in favor of renovation at Waverley.
As selectwoman, I would work with my fellow selectmen and our representatives in state government, Rep. Dave Rogers and Sen. Will Brownsberger to craft a solution that preserves resident access to public transportation.
Community Path Study
BCF: The Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee (CPIAC) is about to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for a feasibility study. What do you expect to learn from that study? How will it bring the town closer to agreement on a path route and design?
Paolillo: The Board of Selectmen will be reviewing and approving the Belmont community path RFP prepared by the CPIAC at one of our March meetings. The RFP, once approved, will be issued by the end of April, with a consultant selected and engaged by the end of May.
The purpose of the study will be to: (1) evaluate potential routes and design features; (2) prepare conceptual designs with cost estimates for path options; (3) propose a recommended solution for the path; and (4) advise on funding steps. The feasibility study is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The study will provide final engineering assessments of the route options evaluated and recommendations for routes and path designs. This will allow the board to make an informed decision and recommend a final route by early next year.
Ruban: The Belmont community path is the largest and most important new infrastructure project in Belmont in the last 50 years. I strongly support its construction—sooner rather than later.
Since this question was written, the CPIAC has completed work on a draft request for proposal (RFP) and sent it to the selectmen to review before putting it out to bid. It is crucial for the board to finish its review of the RFP so that work can begin choosing an engineering firm to study the path and make use of $100,000 in state funds to defray the cost of the study.
I appreciate all the work of the CPIAC that went into creating the RFP. However, I worry that, as currently written, it isn’t specific enough. Following the lead of the Board of Selectmen, the CPIAC refrained from articulating a vision for the community path in its request. Instead, the town is asking engineering firms to propose feasible route options before actually committing to the survey work. Most RFPs of this sort specify the route(s) to be studied.
Belmont’s Community Path Advisory Committee (CPAC), a separate committee, worked for close to two years and held more than three dozen public meetings to solicit public input. I support the work of the CPAC and think we should respect the conclusions of that committee. As Belmont’s next selectwoman, I will work with my colleagues to encourage completion of the necessary engineering study and to resolve what substantive issues remain regarding the community path route. With that complete, the town can access substantial state and federal funds to construct this critically important public infrastructure project.
BCF: The town will soon embark on the most expensive capital project in its history, the renovation/reconstruction of Belmont High School for an estimated $100 million. A building committee of citizen volunteers selected by the moderator and approved by Town Meeting will oversee the project. Is that the best process for a project of this scale? How will you work to ensure that the project is well planned and managed?
Paolillo: The renovation of the Belmont High School is a significant step forward in addressing the urgent needs of a school built in 1970. I do believe the appointment of a temporary building committee of citizen volunteers by the town moderator is the best process to oversee this project. The moderator will be certain to appoint individuals with the necessary construction and financial expertise required by a project of this size. In addition, the new MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) requirements for the composition of the building committee will assure that the educational objectives are fully represented.
The temporary building committee will oversee a feasibility study over several months to review and analyze the renovate-or-rebuild options. I, along with the other members of the Board of Selectmen, will direct the town administrator and all relevant town departments to work closely with the Building Committee, School Committee, and School Department through the feasibility study period to make sure that the new high school design is the right size and addresses the educational needs of our students.
Ruban: The current practice of managing capital projects via a building committee made up of citizen volunteers has served Belmont well in the past and should continue. Most recently, the $39 million construction of Wellington Elementary School was overseen by such a committee and was completed on time, on budget, and won last year’s Harleston Parker Medal for the most beautiful piece of architecture in Greater Boston. The high school project is three times this size.
Therefore, I believe that we should combine putting our faith in building committees made up of citizen volunteers, and for the BHS committee to have a professional to consult and guide it to provide continuity and expertise for the duration of the project.
BCF: In January, the selectmen were briefed on the town’s sewer and storm drain rehabilitation efforts, which have produced notable reductions in bacterial counts in several waterways. Can (and should) the town do more, and, if so, what should be the goal? (e.g., what have been the most cost-effective sewer rehabilitation interventions to date)?
Paolillo: On January 11, 2016, Glenn Clancy, director of community development, presented an overview of the town of Belmont sewer and storm drain system rehabilitation programs. He explained that Belmont currently has three types of programs guiding the rehabilitation of the sanitary sewer and storm drain system as part of its overall strategy targeting corrections to these systems: (1) EPA/DEP Clean Water Projects; (2) MWRA Infiltration/Inflow Removal Projects and; (3) Pavement Management Program Repairs.
Clancy explained to the board that the town of Belmont Alewife/Mystic outfalls (which should contain only rain from storm events) also contains pollutants from leaks in our sanitary sewer collection system. In addition, they contain contaminants such as animal waste, chemicals from fertilizers, and pesticides from runoff from roads and yards. We have made progress in reducing these pollutants and contaminants, but more needs to be done to strengthen the integrity of our sanitary sewer system.
We need to develop a long-term plan to repair and rehabilitate the entire sanitary sewer system over a number of years. We also need to develop plans to reduce the amount of storm water runoff going into the drainage system. The Stormwater Working Group, led by Anne-Marie Lambert, has been working on a number of initiatives to address this. We should continue to work closely with this group on these initiatives. Finally, we need to establish a Stormwater Advisory Group, comprised of experts, to work with the town in the development of a strategic plan to deal with this issue.
Ruban: Unfortunately, the EPA’s 1998 and 2013 violation notices (as well as new requirements coming out in 2016) leave Belmont with little choice but to do more to manage the town’s sewer and stormwater outflows. At the current spending rate ($4.5 million over the next five years) the town will not solve the problem fast enough to meet federal and state requirements.
I support the Belmont Stormwater Working Group’s recommendations, for example, to incorporate green infrastructure in planning and to coordinate with Cambridge on their Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and with Arlington to manage outflow from Spy Pond.
Our town government can explore the feasibility of other measures to help identify and remove illegal sump pump and sewer pipe connections and do more to involve ordinary residents in solving this problem. The first step is informing Belmont residents about how they can help improve water quality and reduce flooding risk.
As Belmont’s selectwoman, I will draw on the expertise of the Mystic River Watershed Association and surrounding towns in helping to formulate Belmont’s long-term policy and strategy.
BCF: The Town of Belmont received $150,000 as a Green Communities award in 2014 for energy conservation in town facilities. Would the town benefit from investing in more conservation and sustainable energy? Should Belmont Light retain its net metering policy to actively encourage residential rooftop solar power? Should the town or Belmont Light have its own renewable energy sources, like a photovoltaic array at the former incinerator site?
Paolillo: In December, 2014, Belmont joined 136 other Massachusetts cities and towns in receiving a Green Communities Designation from the State Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Department of Energy Resources. Today there are 155 communities that have achieved this designation. This designation was the result of the state approving Belmont’s application to become a Green Community because we met the five criteria outlined by the state. Those criteria include establishing a municipal energy use baseline and a program to reduce our energy use by 20% within five years. The town will continue to invest in conservation and sustainable energy initiatives in accordance with our Green Communities designation.
The Board of Selectmen, acting as the Light Board, adopted the recommendations of the Temporary Net Metering Working Group last fall, which included an updated solar tariff. Current residential solar hosts are grandfathered in to continue to receive retail net metering for all electricity delivered to the Belmont Light distribution system for three years. I believe this was a fair and balanced solution to this longstanding issue.
The board also strongly endorsed and supported the Belmont Goes Solar Campaign sponsored jointly by the Town of Belmont Energy Committee, Mothers Out Front, Sustainable Belmont, and the Belmont Light Department, with a goal of 100 new solar installation contracts signed by the end of April.
Finally, I have stated publicly that we should seriously consider the installation of a solar farm to be used for municipal energy at the former incinerator site if deemed economical.
Ruban: The town would certainly benefit from investing in more conservation and sustainable energy. For example, Selectman Paul Solomon’s success more than a decade ago in getting Belmont to sign up with an energy services corporation (ESCo) has saved well over $100,000 each year. (ESCos recommend and implement energy-saving changes for which payback is guaranteed by the company over the life of the contract.) That was low-hanging fruit. Belmont could do more to increase its energy efficiency, saving taxpayer money and helping the environment.
Belmont Light is on the right track with its current solar credit policy. The next step should be a comprehensive net metering policy that will encourage more residents and businesses to make the switch to solar power. With the state’s SREC II allocation drying up, it is more important than ever to adopt better policies, such as full retail net metering and annual netting as is successfully practiced in most Massachusetts towns.
In the long term, the town and Belmont Light should develop renewable energy sources, including photovoltaic arrays, to get back on track with the town’s Climate Action Plan.
Citizens Forum: None of Belmont’s Planning Board members are trained planners, nor has the town replaced former Planning Manager Jay Szklut. Does this concern you? If so, what will you do? [Editor’s note: At the time we asked this question, we did not realize that Karl Haglund is indeed a professional planner and he is a full member of the planning board.]
Paolillo: The Planning Board over the past few years has done very good work for Belmont on many of the issues that have come before it because of the skill and talent of its membership. We will need to determine what the role of the Planning Board will be over the next three to five years and, based on that, determine what experience, orientation, and skills will be required to fulfill that role. The selectmen have also recently determined that there is now a need to have a full-time planner as part of our Community Development Department. We have included the addition of this position in our preliminary 2017 budget. Ruban: The long-delayed mixed-use development in Cushing Square illustrates how Belmont is suffering from a lack of proactive planning for the town’s future.
Ruban: The long-delayed mixed-use development in Cushing Square illustrates how Belmont is suffering from a lack of proactive planning for the town’s future.
While the Vision 21 Implementation Committee is a commendable start, it lacks integration with the town’s other committees and decision-making ability. The scope of the Vision 21 goals and the continued community support for those goals suggests an urgent need for comprehensive planning.
We need to draw on our local talent to address our most perplexing planning challenges. As Belmont’s next selectwoman, I will work with my colleagues to institute the Vision Plan 2010 recommendations, and lobby hard for the installation of a permanent planning manager who can help the town realize its vision and proactively plan for the future, instead of just reacting to developments as they come up.