As those on the FPRA’s listserv and others following local development politics know, Councilor Dennis Carlone introduced a zoning amendment that would change the process by which special permit decisions are made while the city is in the midst of a master planning process. If passed, the Carlone Amendment would make the City Council the exclusive special permit granting authority for “Project Review Special Permits” as described in Section 19.20 in the city’s Zoning Ordinance. The change would restore a power that the Council (our elected officials) has had all along, but had delegated to the Planning Board, volunteers appointed by the City Manager. Unlike a moratorium, which many residents have called for to pause large-scale development during the master planning process, this procedural change would not affect smaller proposals or any “by-right” development.
The Carlone Amendment represents a reasonable response to citizens’ concerns that the rapid pace and scale of development, especially around Alewife and Fresh Pond, undermines the citywide planning process, and that special permit decisions during this critical period should be made by the policymakers who are directly accountable to voters.
Quoting the text of the online petition that Councilor Carlone is circulating in advance of the June 30 meeting when the Council will take up the amendment:
As we move forward with a process to create a citywide Master Plan, this procedural change will enable the City Council to impose reasonable conditions on large, new development projects as part of the ongoing planning process.
Under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 40A, Section 1A, the Cambridge City Council may act a “special permit granting authority” — but as stands, the council has delegated this oversight to the Planning Board, an unelected body.
To be sure, the professionals who volunteer to serve on the Planning Board deserve our gratitude and respect – but when it comes to the big decisions, such as redevelopment of the Sullivan Courthouse, or large-scale development along the Alewife floodplain – we think elected policymakers ought to assume a more meaningful role in the process.
Under Article 19 of the Cambridge Zoning Ordinance, Project Review enables the special permit granting authority to encourage the production of affordable and middle-income housing, mitigate against the impact of added traffic, promote the use of alternative modes of transit, apply strong Urban Design criteria, and more.
Perhaps most importantly, City Council Project Review will create a better system of “checks and balances” — we will continue to draw on the expertise of the Planning Board and the Community Development Department. But with this change, the City Council will also have a say on projects that are likely to have a significant impact on abutting properties and the surrounding urban environment.
Sign the petition in support of the Carlone Amendment.
Residents may also wish to email City Councilors and to attend the June 30 meeting to express their views on this proposed change. The Council meeting will be held in Henrietta S. Attles Meeting Room at 459 Broadway (where the School Committee usually meets), not the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m.
having received several emails from several of our Councilors objecting to the Carlone Proposal and being unable to attend meeting tonight I sent the Council these opinions:
I, and many people I know, have come to expect a high degree of professionalism from the Council and greater answerability to all of us who have elected you and are paying your salaries. These major development decisions must be in your hands. It is my hope that the practice will continue even after completion of the Master Plan. How else would oversight of these major projects be enforced? And who would play this over sight role on our behalf if not you?
The proposal coming before you allows for additional professional help and makes clear that most zoning proposals would not be affected:
“The City Council would also have the option of hiring independent experts to analyze Special Permit applications (at the applicant’s expense), and the council would be able to impose a wide range of conditions on any given proposal — to encourage affordable and middle-income housing, mitigate against traffic impacts and support alternative modes of transit, apply strong Urban Design guidelines, and more.
To be clear, the proposal does not apply to all special permits — only Project Review Special Permits would be affected. In the first half of 2014, a total of three projects have come before the Planning Board to request this kind of relief. Two of those projects — the Sullivan Courthouse and the New Street project — have been bitterly opposed by hundreds of residents on either side of town — and both would ultimately require 2/3rds City Council approval under the Carlone Petition.”
I urge you all to support this proposal. The status quo, and even a Master Plan, however enlightened and useful it might be, are not sufficient and do not take the place of ongoing governance and oversight. If there are legitimate problems with getting things done in a timely manner on the City Council due to things like endless curb cut decisions (as referred to in one Councilor’s email), then we should look at reforming those processes too, or, even more basically, at how we are governing ourselves.
The Ordinance Committee will debate this amendment on Wed., July 30 at 4 pm (459 broadway). Public comment is welcome.