Candidates debate zoning, green space preservation

Candidates in the upcoming preliminary election for Newton City Council seats representing wards 2 and 6 met at the Allen House Tuesday night to debate issues that impact Newton.

And topics included the Village Center Overlay District proposal and preservation of Newton’s green spaces, which, combined, offer a glimpse into how the candidates see their city in the future.

For Ward 2, the candidates are Dan Gaynor, David Micley and Peter Bruce. Ward 6 candidates are Martha Bixby, Lisa Gordon and Mark Holt.

You can watch the debates in their entirety on Youtube.

Here are a few of the highlights related to zoning and nature preservation:

Re-zoning and special permits

The City Council is slated to vote by the end of this year on the Village Center Overlay District proposal, which would re-zone the city’s village centers to allow higher-density housing to fit with the new MBTA Communities Act. Candidates spent Tuesday night both supporting and pushing back against that plan.

In the Ward 2 race, Dan Gaynor said he wants the proposal tweaked to include building setback and environmental requirements. And David Micley said he wants the city to comply with the MBTA Communities Act (which would add 8,300 housing units) but not go over those requirements.

Peter Bruce said he supports compliance with state law but wants to request the state lower housing number requirements near the city’s commuter rail stops. And he wants to stop the part of the plan that allows lot sizes of up to 30,000 square feet to be built up 4.5 stories without a special permit or public input.

“This would turn our village centers into a playground for developers, I’m afraid,” Bruce said. “It’s far too radical.”

In the Ward 6 debate, Lisa Gordon said that she wants the city to re-zone just for the 8,300 units mandated by the MBTA Communities Act and not more.

“I wouldn’t be zoning for more than that until we really have some planning under our belts,” Gordon said.

Holt was direct in his disdain for the whole idea.

“I am absolutely opposed to the imposition of the MBTA Communities Act upon Newton,” Holt said. “This is the first time that the commonwealth has usurped our zoning control over our land use here in Newton.”

Holt said that he did his own “fiscal study” and that he thinks the re-zoning plan will bring Newton taxpayers a $100 million to $200 million annual deficit. He didn’t say what that study entailed or where those numbers come from, however.

Bixby concurred with Gordon, supporting the 8,300-unit state-mandated zoning but not more.

“What we have to remember here is that zoning makes something possible. We don’t have a centrally planned system here,” Bixby said. “Zoning is simply putting in options. I think what we need to be thinking about here is what options we need to keep our village centers vibrant and our schools full of kids.”

Some of the zoning discussion focused on special permits and whether the special permit process was even helpful or not.

In the Ward 2 debate, Micley and Bruce defended special permits as a means for the City Council to negotiate changes to development projects.

“To me, the value of the special permit is giving the city more power over developers to A) decide whether we want the project, and B) if we do, to get as much out of it as possible,” Micley said.

But Gaynor said special permits give bigger developers an advantage, since bigger developers with more money and lawyers can afford to wait through the process.

“I’m the only business owner on this stage. I’m the only job creator on this stage,” Gaynor said, referring to the artificial intelligence-powered data analysis company he founded and recently sold to Signal AI, for whom he works now. “I can tell you that the special permit process is one of the biggest drags on the city’s ability to generate new revenue by allowing small and independent businesses to open here.”

Candidates in Newton’s preliminary election met Tuesday at the Allen House to debate local issues. Left to right are David Micley, Dan Gaynor, Peter Bruce and moderator Marjorie Arons-Barron. Photo by Bryan McGonigle

In the Ward 6 debate, even though Gordon said that she supports zoning for 8,300 units to comply with state law, she said Tuesday that she thinks the voters should be allowed to vote on the Village Center Overlay District proposal in November’s municipal election. She then held up copies of the city’s color-coded re-zoning design to show how much high-density housing would be allowed without a special permit.

“I agree we need to have more housing in our village centers. Walgreens right now is just a big open lot that could absolutely be housing,” Gordon said. “There’s lots of places we could have housing. But we have to be really thoughtful about how we do that.”

Keeping the green

Moderator Marjorie Arons-Barron asked the candidates what they would propose to preserve the green spaces and trees in their wards.

For Ward 2, Micley gave a shout-out to the local volunteer groups cleaning up the city’s trails and caring for its parks and said the city needs to be careful with its natural resources as developers come in to build.

“I think that as we see the pressure for development, as we see the pressure for these new laws that we need to comply by, I think it is so critical that we don’t let any new project take away any trees or take away any greenspace, that that’s all preserved.”

Bruce said he supported a plan put forward by Emily Norton (the Ward 2 city councilor whose seat the three men are running to fill) that would implement a fee for tree removal along Newton’s streets.

More than half of Newton’s tree canopy comes from trees on private lots.

“Those trees can be cut down at the owner’s discretion, which is a problem for preservation purposes,” Bruce said. “So they would have a fee that would go into a fund that people would have to pay into if they chop down their trees. And I think that’s a good reform.”

Gaynor said that the city has gone from 40,000 trees down to 20,000 trees in just 20 years and he wants to stop that trend.

“The rate of cutting down historic trees is, in my view, unacceptable,” Gaynor said, promising to advocate for greenspace within the proposed Village Center Overlay District plan.

In the Ward 6 debate, Bixby called for the city to devote time and work to maintaining Crystal Lake—which has no freshwater input and is replenished with rain—and keep it safe for swimming.

“Similarly, Cold Spring Park, we know what a gem it is and how much wildlife it attracts and supports and also how much support it needs to make sure we’re not overrun with invasives,” Bixby said.

Holt called for a local fee on utilities for gas leaks (gas leaks harm trees) with that money going toward preserving the city’s trees.

Bixby agreed on the natural gas leak issue and said more effort should be put into promoting tree-planting days in Newton.

Newton’s preliminary elections for Wards 2 and 6 will be held on Sept. 12, with early voting to start on Sept. 5. In each race, the two candidates with the most votes will proceed to the general election set for Nov. 7.

The League of Women Voters has also held candidate forums for the preliminary races, one for Ward 2 and one for Ward 6.