June 7, 2018: Reading for Pleasure: The college whodunnit

June 7, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

I could not have been happier. My daughter had come home to spend a few days after completing the last final exam of her first year at Suffolk Law School.  I hadn’t seen her much one day, so I tapped on the guest room door and stuck my nose in one evening to see how she was doing.  She was curled up on the couch, softly snoring, with a half-read mystery novel clutched to her stomach.  Clearly, she had quickly traded in her torts and contracts for an Irish police officer tracking down clues to some gruesome murder.  I closed the door with a smile and tip-toed away.

My contentment arose because I had recently been reading an article reporting that “large-scale surveys by the National Endowment for the Arts show that reading has been declining in popularity for a couple of decades, particularly in the college-aged population.”  Not only do today’s students more frequently succumb to the allure of watching Netflix and YouTube, but young people who experience heavy reading loads for classes are increasingly rebelling at the notion that one might actually pick up a book for “fun” in their spare time.

Class of 2018, I encourage you to buck this trend as you move away from your Belmont High experience.  As you move on to college, I encourage you to make some time each week, indeed each day, for recreational reading.  The NEA reviewed a set of studies about the reading habits of young adults.  It reported that “the results are startling in their consistency. . .There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans.” According to the NEA, “nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.”  It continued to report that “65% of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week or not at all.” Ouch.

This trend merits active resistance.  As one Villanova University writer observes, reading for pleasure is “as healthy a habit as opting for fruit over French Fries, because in doing so, we nourish our minds and enrich our lives in ways that we can’t yet anticipate.”

The NEA reports that “reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities.”  People who read more attend more concerts and theatre than non-readers.  Readers exercise more and attend more sporting events.  They vote more often and volunteer more frequently.  In fact, the data shows that recreational reading will help you succeed in your job.  Frequent readers are without question better writers, and employers of all types list “skill at written communication” as one of the top attributes they seek in new hires.  While the NEA acknowledges that studies do not establish a cause-effect relationship, they do establish that “reading has played a decisive factor.  Whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways.”  According to NEA, “all of the data combine to tell the same story. . .”

So, my counsel to you?  Always make room in that over-stuffed backpack for a recreational book.  Be a frequent visitor to your campus library, not merely to peruse a textbook, but to pick up a good novel as well. Sneak in some time each day, each week, to read for no reason other than the pleasure of following the story.  For example, following the exploits of Dr. Gideon Fell and his locked room mysteries (written by John Dickson Carr) are always interesting adventures.

Class of 2018.  Your community could not be prouder of you as a Belmont High graduate.  Your Belmont education has prepared you well for the journey ahead, wherever that might lead.  Your friends, family, neighbors, indeed the entire community, wish for you all the success and happiness that life might bring.

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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.

May 3, 2018 — McMansions are out: What’s next?

May 3, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Town Meeting will address this month whether to make permanent the regulations designed to protect our General Residence neighborhoods from the continuing construction of out-of-scale housing. In the past few years, too many homes were built which, even if in compliance with the four corners of Belmont’s zoning by-law, inappropriately dominated homes around them, casting shadows and infringing on surrounding properties.

In 2014, Town Meeting imposed temporary restrictions on the construction of such housing in the General Residence zoning district.  This year, it will be asked to remove the time limit that would bring those restrictions to an end.  The proposal has wide support and Town Meeting is expected to approve that change. Accordingly, now it’s time to move past the issue of what we don’t want (McMansions) in order to address the far more difficult question of what we do want.  Here are three suggestions.

First, the Planning Board should move Belmont into an era where the focus of review is on neighborhoods, not on zoning districts.  This can be accomplished in two steps.  Step 1.  As recommended in Belmont’s comprehensive plan, the town should “strengthen [the] physical definitions of neighborhoods.”  Without trying to define precisely what constitutes a “neighborhood” in the brief space I have here –there is significant planning literature on how to define “neighborhoods”—it seems self-evident that there are many distinct neighborhoods in the General Residence zoning district that differ one from another.  For example, East Belmont should surely be seen to differ from the neighborhood that borders PQ Park. Despite both areas being in the General Residence zone, they are dramatically different.

Step 2.  Having defined the neighborhoods, the town should then establish neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards that can reinforce historical character and development patterns. Again without proposing specific standards here, one can easily see the tremendous differences within the General Residence zoning district. For example, many areas around Waverley Square lack substantial front yards in a way not evident elsewhere.  For example, the General Residence area incorporating Warwick Road and Raleigh Road (and environs) has a mix of single-family and two-family homes not in evidence elsewhere.  The character of the two areas differs. What would be appropriate to construct in the two areas would differ.  The notion that Belmont should base its development review on neighborhood-specific design and site plan standards seems well-founded.

Second, General Residence areas that are along Trapelo Road, Belmont Street and Concord Ave. should be rezoned to allow new housing alternatives, increased mixed use, and additional business.  For example, located along Trapelo Road are a number of residential areas which have homes partially or entirely converted into commercial service, medical, and office uses. Called “transition areas” in Belmont’s comprehensive plan, these areas are mostly zoned General Residence. As even our town’s comprehensive plan noted, the current zoning of these areas “does not reflect current uses, or historic development patterns and dimensional standards. Re-zoning of these residential areas would both foster their protection and allow for modest changes in keeping with the character of these neighborhoods.”

Finally, the town should adopt new regulations to affirmatively promote the preservation of small open spaces.  We too often lose sight of the fact that the terms “open space” and “parks” are not synonymous. Open space can be privately owned. For example, Belmont has not traditionally adequately considered the role of “yards” in pursuit of open space preservation.   One proposal advanced in the past that deserves at least a public conversation today is the recommendation that on-street residential parking be allowed in selected higher density neighborhoods to prevent the loss of yards to accommodate parking.

It is always easier to say what we don’t want than to engage in the required effort to develop positive forward-thinking proposals on how we want to shape the future of Belmont. Indeed, some proposals might require having those uncomfortable conversations where, unlike controlling McMansions, we might not all agree (e.g., allowing on-street parking in some higher density areas of town). It’s called “planning.”  Now that the General Residence McMansion restrictions have been made permanent, here’s hoping we can now move on to that next task.

April 19, 2018: Bill Skelley–All about community

April 19, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In a way, this is a story about neighborhoods. It’s a story about how neighborhoods have a certain rhythm to them.  It’s a story of how residents of a neighborhood grow. How they change. How the residents can interact with each other and create something vibrant and fulfilling.  It’s a story about community. It’s a story about Bill Skelley.  Skelley, who passed away this month and who will be sorely missed by those who knew him, was all about community.

Bill Skelley lived on Warwick Road until his death.  Oh no, not that (!) Bill Skelley.  Did I forget to mention it?  The story begins before Bill Skelley the Selectman.  This was Big Bill, the one who was a firefighter in Cambridge.  Bill, along with his wife Edna, raised their children, including Belmont’s future selectman, on this small one-block long street off Common Street.  Bill and Edna began their tenure on Warwick Road as the young parents on the block.  Bill and Edna, however, remained in their home for decades.  Over time, they became the oldsters and other young families moved in around them.

As Bill and Edna aged, they became less and less able to do some of the necessary chores around their home. Living in New England, one of those chores, of course, was clearing the snow that seemed always to drift along the driveway running up the hill to the back of their home.  Particularly in those days, before the time of snowblowers and contractors who cleared driveways with a pick-up and a blade, clearing snow proved a challenge to the seniors of Warwick Road.

My neighbor, Mike Smith, and I took it upon ourselves to visit the Skelley home after each snowfall to clear their driveway.  We, and our wives, had become the youngsters on the block, displacing Bill and Edna from that status.  And, quite frankly, being younger, we had stronger backs and more ability to clear the Skelley driveway than Big Bill did.   It wasn’t an obligation. It was simply something neighbors did for neighbors.

That’s where “Little Bill” comes in. By now, Little Bill had completed his star sports career at Belmont High.  He had married and had his own kids.  He sharpened his own sense of community as he coached youth sports.  He pursued that sense of community through participation on a variety of town committees, ultimately being elected to Belmont’s Board of Selectmen.  He still regularly visited his parents, however, in their little white house with the long driveway on Warwick Road.  And he noticed that his parents’ driveway always seemed to be clear after snow storms.

After he was elected to the Board of Selectmen, Little Bill visited Mike and I one night after visiting his parents across the street.  He thanked us for helping his mom and dad.  However, he did more than that.  He talked about the needs of the larger community, of the town as a whole.  He talked about the need for the town to have participation in community affairs by residents young and old. And he talked about how shoveling the driveway of an aging couple wasn’t all that different in principle from serving on a town committee addressing town needs.  He asked Mike and I to think about what committees we might have an interest in.

Mike was appointed to the Historic District Commission.  I was appointed to the Fair Housing Committee.  All because we shoveled the driveway of a neighbor in need.

There are new residents now on Warwick Road, those who have come since the Skelleys, both “big” and “little,” lived there.  The people who are the young families are different.  The people who were young have now grown older and look to others for help with more frequency.  The rhythm of the neighborhood continues.  The cycle of change never ends.  But we are lucky to have known Bill Skelley. What lives on, as embodied in the life of Bill Skelley, is the sense that we’re all in this together. We are more than a group of families who happen to live next to each other. We are a community.

April 5, 2018 — Election Reflections

April 5, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald

I pulled a wadded up piece of newsprint out of my pocket earlier this week and threw it in the trash. I gave it no further thought.  Not because it was unimportant. Quite the contrary. It‘s a piece of paper that contributed to the very essence of living in Belmont. That wadded up paper ball had served it function, as similar sheets of paper have done time and again over the years.

In Belmont, we are lucky to have an organization whose very reason for being is defined as to “make democracy work.”  The Belmont League of Women Voters is a group of men and women of all ages and backgrounds who proclaim their common interest as being to  “encourage active and informed participation in government through education and advocacy.”

It is a local organization focusing on local Belmont needs.  The national League of Women Voters was founded in 1920.  In April 1936, however, one hundred Belmont women left the Cambridge League to found the local Belmont organization.  Since then, the League has sought to educate the community on topics ranging from the needs of senior citizens, to the annual town budget, to each year’s town election.

My paper ball flows from those efforts.  I cannot remember the last time I went into a voting booth without having torn out the Precinct 6 pages from the League’s annual “Voter Guide” and checked off the Town Meeting Members I intended to vote for.  In the Voter Guide, the League publishes the results of its survey not only of candidates for townwide office, but of all Town Meeting candidates as well.  The “survey” asks simply that each candidate respond to a request to “discuss an issue or two which you consider important to the future of the town, presenting your ideas for managing them effectively.”  The responses are published verbatim and mailed to each household in Belmont.

Wow. Step back and consider for a moment the work that goes into that.  With eight precincts and twelve Town Meeting slots open in each precinct, sometimes with more candidates than slots available, someone with the Belmont League is identifying the candidates, mailing each candidate the survey, compiling the responses, formatting those responses, and arranging the printing and mailing so that the responses can be delivered to every household in Belmont.  That’s not just a “few hours” of work. And they have been providing that service for years.  The League published its first Voter Guide in 1986 and has been doing it since.

It’s not just the Voter Guide, of course.  The Belmont League also sponsors the annual Candidate’s Night, where every candidate is invited to attend and be available to any community member who might wish to come advocate a position or ask a question.  Speaking of direct one-on-one democracy!

This year’s League efforts went off without a hitch. The Voter Guide was printed and delivered. Candidate’s Night was held.  And, therein lies my concern. Why is smooth sailing a problem?  My fear is that when things run so well, for so long, they become, in a way, invisible to the public.  And when things become invisible, the people who make it all happen, and the effort involved, become unnoticed. The services are “expected” rather than “appreciated.”  For example, though I use the League’s Voter Guide every year, I can’t remember even once having said to a member of Belmont’s League of Women Voters “thank you. That Guide you mail to me? It helps.”

So, let me rectify that wrong.  That publication you mail to me plays an essential role in one of the most important tasks I do each spring: deciding who to vote for in Town elections. To the leaders who steer the League; to the workers who prepare the Guide; to the supporters who help pay for it; thank you.  Please rest assured that Belmont is better off for your efforts.

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.

March 8, 2018–Expanding Board of Selectmen has Merit

March 8, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

The questions posed by an assessment of the proper size of Belmont’s Board of Selectmen, as recently considered by a Town Meeting study committee, predate the very founding of our community.  “No political problem,” James Madison said in The Federalist (No. 54), “is less susceptible to a precise solution than that which relates to the number convenient for a representative legislature. . .”  While the Board of Selectmen is obviously not Belmont’s “legislature,” that function being assigned to Town Meeting, the difficult questions identified by James Madison 230 years ago are those which Belmont now faces as well.

There is no standard size for a municipal governing board. Nor are there any definitive guidelines on how such a size might be determined. Perhaps the closest that exists is the Model City Charter (Eighth Edition), last published in 2011 by the National Civic League. In its commentary on council size, the Model Charter recommends that “the council be small – ranging from five to nine members. . .[S]maller city councils are more effective instruments for the development of programs and conduct of municipal business than large local legislative bodies.”

Even the “small” council endorsed by the National Civic League, however, has a minimum of five members.  A three member municipal governing board has never been recommended by the League.  The smallest municipal council size ever recommended by the League has been four members.

The Model City Charter’s discussion tempers its recommendation of a “small” council with the following observation: “in determining the size of the council, drafters should consider the diversity of population elements to be represented and the size of the city.”  This advice seems particularly applicable to Belmont.  While obviously Belmont is not a “large” community (as communities go), there is no question but that, financially, even Belmont operates a “large” budget.  With a town budget well in excess of $100 million in Fiscal Year 2018, there can be little question that Belmont’s municipal government is a large and complex organization.

In addition, Belmont’s frequent portrayal as a homogenously white, upper-middle class community is a gross over-generalization. While, clearly, there are homogeneously white, upper-middle areas within Belmont, the diversity of Belmont is actually quite stark.  Belmont residents exhibit diversity in attributes such as age, economic status, race, homeowner vs. renter status, and length of time people have lived in the town, amongst others.  It seems, in other words, that Belmont’s diversity counsels for a larger rather than a smaller Board of Selectmen.

A 2009 study by the University of Buffalo’s Regional Institute examined the size of municipal government boards.  The Regional Institute concluded that “size choices have tradeoffs” and there is no optimal size “to maximize performance on all municipal goals.”  The Institute stated: “virtually all design decisions entail tradeoffs to balance multiple competing goals and values.”  The Institute’s study found that larger councils are generally better able to represent diverse public opinion, respond to demands for constituent service, deliberate reflectively, and tackle complex or controversial issues.  In contrast, the Institute continued, smaller councils are better able to operate cheaply, respond to community consensus, and handle a light workload of routine and uncontroversial decisions.

It would appear that Belmont falls on the side of those factors counseling for a larger council.  And Belmont would not be unique in reaching this conclusion.  The Institute’s study examined the size of municipal governing boards in five counties in New York, including communities ranging in size from villages, to towns, to cities.  The final study reported that of the 156 communities in these five counties, only one had a local municipal board of three persons.  By far, the most common size of a local municipal board was five persons.  At the least, while it would not be legitimate to decide that Belmont should have five members on its Board of Selectmen because “everyone else does,” it is appropriate to find that the relatively small size of Belmont does not make our community “too small” to support a five-person governing board.

The Town Meeting study committee’s recommendation to expand the size of Belmont’s Board of Selectmen has merit for our community.  Town Meeting should act favorably on that recommendation.