May 24, 2018 — Driveways, the environment and individual choices

May 24, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

It finally happened.  Despite having shivered through a 47-degree game-time temperature at a recent Red Sox game, spring has finally sprung in Belmont.  There have been a sufficient number of warm days in a row that I decided to finally pack away the snow shovels for another year.  If it snows in mid-May or later, I figured that a day or two of sun would soon melt it all off my driveway.

All this was occurring at the same time that Town Meeting was debating whether to ban the use of thin film plastic bags at stores in Belmont.  That ban got me to thinking about other aspects of “being green” in Belmont.  Town Meeting’s overwhelming approval of the plastic bag ban certainly makes it appear that a sizable portion of Belmont’s population believes that it is not merely appropriate, but necessary,  to make collective decisions to preserve the environment that we will hand over to our kids and grandkids.

And, as so frequently seems to happen, I began to worry about how things all fit together. I enthusiastically supported the ban on plastic bags. Even if one wasn’t convinced by the presentation made by Linda Levin-Scherz at Town Meeting, it would be impossible to ignore the study just published which found microscopic bits of plastic not only in the waters of the Great Lakes, but, heaven forbid, also in the beer that is brewed using water from the Great Lakes. Active steps are needed.

What I worry about is whether people believe too ardently in the notion that government action, such as a ban on plastic bags, is the remedy of first resort to environmental degradation.  All sorts of individual decisions get made in Belmont that result in either contributing to the problem of environmental degradation or contribute to mitigating environmental degradation.  It is each person’s choice to be part of the problem or to be part of the solution.

And that brings me back to my snow-shovels. Allowing the sun to melt any snowfall on my driveway will, under ordinary circumstances, result in a water run-off from my driveway.  That runoff occurs not simply due to snow melt, but also from any rain storm that passes through Belmont.  An asphalt driveway, which is known as an impermeable surface, directs the water runoff to the streets.  The runoff is then captured by the town’s storm drains rather than being absorbed on your property.  As the runoff is directed into the storm drains, the pollutants that the water picks up along the way are also directed into our region’s water systems.

If that water runoff could instead be absorbed on your property, the ground would serve to filter out those pollutants rather than directing them into our waterways.  Accordingly, if you plan to repave your driveway this summer, one of the “greener” decisions you can make –for your community, your state, your world– is to consider the use of a permeable surface.  Given that you’re going to spend a lot of the winter time dealing with snow (whether by shovel, or snow-blower, or a hired truck with a plow), a permeable surface such as crushed stone probably isn’t an option.

Other permeable options exist, however.  Using pavers is one alternative.  Permeable concrete is another alternative. Permeable concrete allows water to be absorbed rather than having it runoff to the storm drains. It matters not whether the water is the result of snow melt or a rain storm.  In an urban area such as Boston, permeable paving options have increasingly become available as an alternative to traditional paving.

The point is that it is not simply town government’s responsibility to help maintain the water quality in our surrounding waterways.  Each individual also has a responsibility to make personal decisions that will make our community greener.  It is great that Town Meeting voted to ban the use of thin film plastic bags in our community.  But that governmental decision does not relieve any of us from also making sure that our own individual choices also take environmental consequences into account.

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March 22, 2018–New Power Supply Policy: Truly a Big Deal

March 22, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald

On its face, the document may seem dreadfully boring at best.  After all, even if one could fully understand Belmont Light’s new “Power Supply Policy,” why would anyone want to do so?

The policy, however, adopted last week by the Board of Selectmen, sitting as the Light Board, is one of the more important decisions Belmont’s chief policymakers have made recently.  The decision affects our pocketbooks; our homes and businesses; our children and grandchildren.  It affects us all, every day.  People should take note.

The centerpiece of the new Power Supply Policy is the decision that Belmont Light “should seek out both least cost renewable and non-carbon-emitting energy sources in New England and surrounding regions.”  That decision helps make Belmont part of the solution, not part of the problem, in responding to global climate change.  What that means is that each person’s decision to turn on each electric appliance each day is now less likely to result in carbon emissions spewing into the air as power plants consume ever more fossil fuel to keep up with the consumer demand for electricity.

In contrast, the new Belmont Light policy also recognizes that one of the most effective ways to decrease carbon emissions from electricity is to avoid using that electricity in the first place.  Programs to help Belmont customers reduce their electricity use through increased efficiency (think, new efficient light bulbs) and, yes, old-fashioned conservation (turn off those unused lights for gosh sakes!) are no less important to pursue than programs to clean-up the electricity we do use.  Belmont Light is not simply in the business to sell electricity. It is in the business to sell the wise use of electricity. And, sometimes the best use of electricity is not to use it all.

However, and it is a big “however,” the Belmont Light policy also recognizes that “increased electricity use may be effective in reducing carbon emissions” in some circumstances.  Called “strategic electrification,” the move from gasoline-powered automobiles to electric vehicles, for example, is a sound carbon reduction strategy (even while leaving your car at home and walking into Belmont Center to shop is an even better idea).  Taking advantage of Belmont Light’s program to help you install an electric heat pump in your home is another example.  Belmont Light’s heat pump rebate program increases electricity use, but helps residents reduce, if not entirely eliminate, their use of much dirtier fuel oil heating.

Belmont Light’s new Power Supply Policy goes where most municipal light departments in Massachusetts have thus far declined to go. When the state proposed last spring to mandate the same “clean energy standards” for municipal electric utilities that it had imposed on private utilities, the municipal light departments around the state howled in protest.  Now, however, Belmont has stepped forward to announce that “consistent with a moderate rate impact, Belmont Light shall meet” those very same state clean energy standards, even “though it is not otherwise legally obligated to do so.”  In fact, Belmont Light says, it will annually assess whether to pursue “a more aggressive” use of clean energy than that required of the state’s private electric utilities.

All in all, the new Belmont Light Power Supply Policy commits our municipal electric utility to pursue activity “that provides Belmont customers with reliable electric service at the lowest possible cost consistent with the Town’s Climate Action Plan.”  And that, folks, is neither boring nor inconsequential.  Belmont’s Climate Action Plan commits the town to pursue an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050.

What Belmont Light just did catapults our locally-owned electric light department into a leadership position among the state’s municipal utilities on clean energy policy.  It is truly a big deal.  And whether it be Steve Klionsky, chair of the Light Board Advisory Committee; Craig Spinale, interim general manager of Belmont Light;  Adam Dash, chair of the Belmont Light Board; or the other members of the Board of Selectmen and Belmont Light staff, they should be congratulated and thanked for making the right decision.

February 1, 2018–Belmont Light: Happy customers, greener power

February 1, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont residents approve of the performance of Belmont Light, even while they don’t quite understand how our local electric utility operates.  Those are two of the messages found in the 2017 “Customer Satisfaction Survey” recently released by the utility.

Town residents are happy with both the service they receive from Belmont Light and the rates they pay.  According to the Belmont Light study, “when compared to other utilities (gas, phone, water, and cable), [customers] have a more positive perception of the service they receive from Belmont Light than other utilities.”  Belmont Light’s customers provided the utility a net positive rating of 94% in 2017, a slight increase over the rating of 91.8% received in the last survey in 2015.  Out of the nine factors customers were asked about, “reliable service” ranked the highest, with a positive ranking of 94.4%.

An overwhelming majority of Belmont residents know that Belmont Light is publicly-owned. The Belmont Light study reported that eight out of ten of the town’s residents recognized Belmont Light as a “community owned municipal utility” rather than as a private utility such as National Grid.  Knowing the public status of the electric utility, however, does not translate into public knowledge about how Belmont Light operates.  Fewer than half of Belmont Light customers knew that the utility is governed by a board made up of the town’s Board of Selectmen.

Being municipally-owned carries with it a host of responsibilities, Belmont customers told Belmont Light.  One such responsibility involves the efforts that Belmont Light should take to pursue “community goals.”  The Belmont Light study reports that more than one-third of the company’s customers (34.5%) believe that “community goals are more important than industry best practices,” while fewer than one-quarter (23.4%) thought the opposite, that industry best practices are more important.

One of those community goals is achieving higher levels of renewable energy.  More than one half of Belmont Light customers reported that they would be willing to pay somewhat higher rates to garner additional renewable energy for Belmont Light, while less than one-third said that they were unwilling to pay more money for this reason. The remainder said they “didn’t know.”  According to GreatBlue Research, the company that did Belmont Light’s study, this willingness of Belmont residents to pay somewhat more for “greener” electricity is significantly higher than in other communities comparable to Belmont.

Belmont residents believe Belmont Light is doing a good job of controlling its rates.  One advantage of public power is that the rates of municipally-owned utilities tend to be lower than the rates of private utility companies.  And Belmont residents are satisfied with Belmont Light’s efforts to keep electric rates reasonable.  According to the study, “a slightly higher rate of customers agree with the perception that Belmont Light is ‘doing all that it can to keep customer prices low’ despite changing fuel prices and economic factors.”  In fact, a higher percentage of customers believed this to be true in 2017 than in the previous survey performed in 2015.

Belmont Light should be pleased with how favorably it is viewed by its customer base.  Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned.  First, Belmont residents expect Belmont Light to be involved in contributing to “community goals.”  Belmont Savings, as our local community bank, even though not publicly owned, serves as a great example of an institution that defines supporting the community as part of its mission.  Second, Belmont residents not only expect Belmont Light to take a leading role in responding to global climate change that can be attributed in large part to emissions from electricity, but residents are willing, within reason, to pay somewhat higher rates for the light department to pursue more renewable energy as part of that response.

Reliability remains, as it should be, at the heart of the service provided by any electric utility.  When people flip the switch, they want their lights to go on.  And reliability is one place where Belmont Light excels. Belmont Light’s own research, however, shows additional steps that the utility could and should be taking to serve the interests and expectations of Belmont’s customer base.

January 18, 2018 — Belmont’s Comprehensive Plan — Much yet to do

January 18, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In this third part of a three-part series that examines Belmont’s ten-year comprehensive plan, I examine aspects of the plan that have not been pursued in the eight years since it was adopted.  The progress taken to implement some aspects of the plan, as considered last week, should not mask the lack of progress elsewhere.

Much of what has not happened involves our local business centers. The comprehensive plan recommended that Belmont “establish a more predictable approval process [for new development] that focuses on design standards and impact analysis.” The plan noted that existing zoning focuses on “height, density and use,” factors which do “not ensure compatibility of new development with [Belmont’s] historic character and development patterns…” These new standards have never been considered.  The plan recommended rezoning Belmont’s business centers to allow “mixed uses,” a combination of residential and commercial uses, an action not taken.  This failure, the plan says, “inhibits an appropriate mix of uses and scaled new or infill development which can enhance the vitality of these districts.”

Re-visioning Belmont’s “commercial centers” was recommended.  For example, the plan recommended defining new business centers, including Central/Palfrey Square, East Belmont and Brighton Street (“Hill’s Crossing”) (nearby Hill Estates), each having its own individual character.  This recommendation has been ignored.

Preserving Belmont’s neighborhoods received considerable attention in the comprehensive plan.  The plan indicated that Belmont first needs to “strengthen [the] physical definition of neighborhoods.”  After doing that, the plan recommended “establishing neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards [that] can reinforce historical character and development patterns.” This has not been pursued.

For historic preservation, the comprehensive plan recommended a by-law to protect “specimen trees,” along with increased use of “scenic road designations.” (Somerset Street is Belmont’s only “scenic road”).  Neither have been pursued.

Increasing the “walkability” of Belmont is one essential strategy for a sustainable community.  The comprehensive plan recommended that “sidewalks should be included in road reconstruction policy.”  That is still not done. Not too many years ago, the Board of Selectmen determined that Belmont’s limited resources should be devoted to road repair and reconstruction, excluding sidewalks.  Perhaps now that there are sufficient resources for road repair, a corresponding sidewalk repair and reconstruction plan should be prepared.

Some things recommended in the comprehensive plan are beyond the direct control of Belmont and have not been pursued.  Improving bus connections to Alewife (such as diverting existing 128 shuttles to/from Waltham) is one example.  Advocacy by Belmont’s leaders is what is needed, not direct decisionmaking.

Some action steps, seemingly reasonably “easy,” have not been pursued.  Improving signage for Belmont Center parking has never occurred.  One certainly does not drive down Waltham’s Moody Street and wonder where municipal parking is located.  Similarly, developing a signed pedestrian circulation plan for the Leonard/Common/Concord intersection, as recommended by the plan, should be manageable.  Why do people feel they must risk their lives to get from Clark Street / White Street / Belmont Center to the Post Office? Is that process more difficult than it sounds?

The comprehensive plan recommended steps increase bicycling to school.  Designating bike routes to school, marked by signage, was one recommendation  not pursued. But who decides? The Selectmen? DPW? Office of Community Development? Similarly, “providing bicycle parking/storage at transit stations” and other public destinations was recommended but not done.

Comprehensive plan recommendations to increase housing alternatives have received some of the least attention.  The plan recommended consideration of allowing accessory/in-law apartments and allowing three-family structures where they have been historically located.  Allowing increased attached single-family housing and townhouse development was recommended for consideration. None of these have been considered, let alone adopted.

The failures identified above, if inaction can even be considered a failure –“failure” may be unduly harsh of a word– cannot be laid solely at the feet of the Selectmen.  Multiple decisionmakers can/should consider what was recommended in the 2010 comprehensive plan and what needs to be done to bring forth those recommendations for decision.  Inaction may simply indicate the lack of resources to pursue all of the plan’s recommendations, even over eight years. Inaction may also simply indicate the inherent difficulty in converting a “recommendation” into a “proposal.”  Ultimately, while much has been done since Belmont adopted the town’s 2010-2020 comprehensive plan, much remains to be done.

Roger Colton has been a Belmont resident since 1985 living in the Cushing Square neighborhood. He is also the host of Belmont Media Center’s podcast, “Community Conversations” and a guest host of Belmont Media Center’s weekly news program, “Belmont Journal.”  He’s a Town Meeting Member and chair of the Belmont Energy Committee.  Colton can be reached at Colton.Conversations@comcast.net.

January 11, 2018: Looking at all that has been accomplished

January 11, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Now that Belmont is eight years into its ten-year Comprehensive Plan, community members might wish to think about which recommendations from that plan have been accomplished and which have fallen by the wayside.  It would be unreasonable to expect that all recommendations would be pursued.  There is never sufficient staff, time or money to pursue all recommendations.  Those action steps that are taken, and those that are set-aside, however, do reflect the “high” and “low” priorities of Belmont’s decision-makers.  It seems reasonable, therefore, to review those decisions to allow community members to assess for themselves whether the priorities pursued by the town’s leadership comport with the priorities residents believe to be most important.

The reference to Belmont’s “leadership” is not a reference exclusively to the Board of Selectmen. Rather, Belmont relies heavily on volunteer committees to assert leadership in the areas that are within their charge.  Indeed, much of the progress that Belmont has made in pursuing the recommendations of the Comprehensive Plan originates from the Town’s committees.  Town Meeting Members, too, have a role to play in asserting leadership. They should not simply react to the proposals of others.

In this week and next, I will examine those Comprehensive Plan recommendations that have and have not been pursued.  I begin with some of the more notable accomplishments since the Comprehensive Plan was prepared.  They are considerable.

Preserving the character of Belmont was key to the Comprehensive Plan.  The Comprehensive Plan recommended consideration of a demolition delay by-law to help protect the historic nature of the community.  Under the leadership of the Historic District Commission, that by-law was adopted by Town Meeting. The Comprehensive Plan recommended “adoption of energy efficient building code standards and incentives.”  At the behest of the Energy Committee, Town Meeting adopted the Stretch Energy Code (an energy efficient building code).  The Comprehensive Plan recommended adoption of the Community Preservation Act.  Town Meeting approved the CPA, as did the voters.

Addressing financial issues received substantial attention in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended that Belmont “undertake planning for the next phase of public building projects.” Just last year, for the first time, Town Meeting approved short- and long-term plans to move forward on the library, the DPW Yard and the police station.  A high school building committee has been appointed, and is working diligently toward a new school.

Supporting our commercial districts was an important element in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended “improv(ing) the physical appearance of commercial areas.”  Not without considerable pain in the process, Belmont Center and Cushing Square both received complete facelifts since that recommendation.

Open space was a critical Comprehensive Plan element.  The plan recommended taking steps to “preserve and enhance active and passive recreation areas.”  At the behest of the Conservation Commission, Clay Pit Pond has been subject to a master planning process with implementation steps now occurring.  Through the leadership of neighborhood groups, the Grove Street Park and PQ Playground are both being subject to renovations, and Joey’s Park was completely rebuilt.  Town Field is next in line for approval by Town Meeting, perhaps even this spring.  The Comprehensive Plan recommended steps to “expand off-street recreational trails that interconnect. . .to inter-town trails both to the East and West.”  The Board of Selectmen just recently approved a route for Belmont’s community path.

Energy and sustainability were addressed in the Comprehensive Plan.  The Plan recommended that Belmont should “reduce the Town’s energy budget.”  Belmont became a Green Community and has been receiving state funds ever since to reduce energy usage in town buildings. The BHS Building Committee has made sustainability one of its priorities for the new school.  The Plan recommended new “zoning for by-right alternative energy equipment/installations.” Town Meeting approved a new solar zoning by-law and more than 250 residents have since installed rooftop solar units.

The list could continue.  Frequently, it seems that complaining about what the Town is not doing is a favorite past-time among some Belmont residents.  However, while there are certainly elements of the Comprehensive Plan that have not been pursued as aggressively as they should be (and should have been) (a topic I will consider next week), assertions that “nothing ever gets done” in Belmont are demonstrably wrong.

October 19, 2017: Zoning changes needed in light of increased ride-sharing

October 19, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

The Belmont Planning Board recently discussed what steps could be taken to “revitalize” Waverley Square.  The need to engage in a town-wide conversation about how to attract new development to Waverley Square has long been recognized. One of the first steps that could be taken, however, would benefit Belmont’s other business districts as well.  Belmont should revisit what parking requirements are required by local zoning regulations given today’s world of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

There can be little question that as ride-sharing services expand, both the use of cars and the corresponding need to park those cars, is being reduced.  As one parking analyst notes, “parking is what cars do most of the time.  The average automobile spends 95 percent of its time sitting in place.”  It is not unusual for a community to devote up to four or five parking spaces somewhere in town for every automobile that is owned.  That, however, will not continue.  Another firm, which specializes in urban parking issues, recently estimated that “current parking needs will be cut in half in the next 30 years.”

Ride-sharing has been found to reduce parking needs for service establishments such as local restaurants in particular.  When one thinks about it, the reason for that reduction is evident. Uber-delivered patrons don’t need parking spaces because the cars in which they arrive (and depart) are never parked.  William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, explains that the only way Uber drivers make money is to keep their cars in motion.  And, as Kinder says, “every Uber ride means one less car in the parking lot.”

Multiple studies agree that the increased use of ride-sharing services is decreasing the demand for local parking. The University of Michigan’s Transportation Institute, for example, concluded that “if you’re in a big city with a large ridesharing car fleet in operation, there may not be much need to own your own vehicle—after all, getting a ride is only a couple taps away.” Similarly, a survey of 1,200 people in Austin (TX) reported that 41% of respondents increased the use of their personal cars when Uber and Lyft were driven from town by local regulation.

From a climate change perspective, increasing the use of ride-sharing services helps a community reduce its carbon footprint.  Jason Bordoff, a former energy advisor to President Obama explains that even though ride-sharing may expand the total number of miles driven by some cars, “they also improve the economics of electric vehicles, which have higher capital costs but lower operating costs, by sharply increasing the utilization rate of cars.” Bordoff concludes that “all of this matters for energy and climate change.”

Recognizing the reduced need for parking, and incorporating that recognition into our zoning bylaws, would offer two positive impacts to Belmont businesses. First, it would quite literally take less space to operate a business if fewer parking spaces are required.  More locations in Belmont would become economically viable.  Second, providing parking spaces is expensive. Requiring a number of parking spaces that exceeds that which, in reality, is needed by a business imposes an unnecessary cost to operate that Belmont business.

The Planning Board recently reduced the mandatory parking requirements to allow a new restaurant to open in Belmont Center.  It would benefit the town and our local business community if that was not simply a one-and-done decision.  Updating our local zoning to reflect declining parking needs in light of contemporary transportation choices would be sound climate change policy, sound business-development strategy, and a sound first step forward to help redevelop Waverley Square.