A revolting development


A Boston University study recently found that municipal zoning boards, planning boards and redevelopment boards are dominated by white male homeowners.

Wait. Men are more interested in construction, development and zoning than women are? What’s the next bombshell revelation – male drivers won’t ask for directions?

Fight the urban planning patriarchy!

Speaking of zoning and development, it’s time for your periodic reminder that most of the development you’ve been seeing in recent years is happening in and around the downtown district and along public transportation routes, not on the leafy suburban lanes of Greenwood or the West Side.

That’s not by accident, but it’s not a conspiracy, either – unless you consider Wakefield Town Meeting a “conspiracy.” In November of 2015, Town Meeting voters approved a zoning change designed to encourage mixed-use development in the downtown business districts and along public transit lines.

It has worked exactly as Town Meeting intended.

Isn’t that where you want these projects to go – in the more “urban” parts of town, where residents of these buildings will be able to walk and bike to stores and restaurants in order to help our struggling businesses, not to mention saving the planet from the scourge of climate change?

That’s what used to be known in certain circles as “smart growth”: mixed-use development centered around public transportation, business districts and common recreation areas in order to promote walkability, bicycling and the use of trains and buses as opposed to cars, addressing another major local complaint: traffic.

But if that’s not what you want, it’s fine by me. I’ve never been a big fan of this social engineering approach to zoning anyway.

Like all zoning changes, Article 12 on that Nov. 16, 2015 Town Meeting warrant, which made it easier for developers to propose mixed-use retail and residential projects in the business and industrial zones, needed to pass by a two-thirds majority.

Which it did.

But let’s berate the Zoning Board of Appeals for applying the Zoning Bylaws that two-thirds of Town Meeting voters put in place. There are people on Facebook with no clue whether the Board of Appeals is elected or appointed who are now calling for the ZBA to be “fired,” especially after what they did last week.

After scrutinizing every detail of the proposal over 16 months of public hearings, the ZBA voted unanimously last week to grant the Special Permits that will allow Cabot Cabot & Forbes to build 440 units of housing mixed with a restaurant component on the site of the vacant former American Mutual/Comverse building at the head of the Lake.

Last week’s decision sparked the predictable catcalls directed at the Board of Appeals from the social media zoning experts and Facebook urban planners who didn’t bother attending any of the hearings.

Disagreeing with this ZBA decision is one thing. What’s not OK is publicly demonizing the individuals who serve on the Zoning Board and accusing them of corruption without a shred of evidence.

“It was in the bag from the beginning,” was one Facebook user’s conclusion.

“Someone got paid off,” said another.

“The ZBA’s pockets must be bulging with cash now!” someone else declared.

Those were just a few of the outrageous, despicable and, it goes without saying, utterly baseless comments posted in Wakefield Facebook groups in the last week.

When the Facebook pundit who posted the “pockets bulging with cash” comment was called out on it, he claimed that he was just “making a joke.”

Some joke.

I wonder how he would feel if I made a “joke” in the newspaper about him taking bribes. Something tells me he wouldn’t find that “joke” amusing.

But apparently the ZBA is fair game. As long as you see the them as some distant, abstract entity, without faces or names, I guess it’s easy to slander them.

People forget that the Zoning Board of Appeals is made up of Wakefield citizens, homeowners and taxpayers. In other words, people like you. And they have to live with the results of their decisions, just like everybody else in town.

The difference between the members of the ZBA and all the zoning experts on Facebook is that the ZBA actually scrutinized every tiny detail related to this project over the course of a year and a half of public hearings. Plus, they have to follow the law.

Despite the free legal advice offered to the ZBA by the amateur attorneys on Facebook, “Just say no,” isn’t an option that would hold up on appeal.

Firms like Cabot Cabot and Forbes have an army of highly specialized attorneys just itching for something to do. That doesn’t mean that town can never deny a project. But you’d better start with a solid legal reason for denial. “They’re turning Wakefield into Malden!” isn’t legal grounds to deny a project.

But it does reveal the elitism that is behind a lot of this anti-development sentiment. People like to talk about the “Maldenization of Wakefield.” If you ask them, “What’s wrong with Malden?” they’ll tell you it has too many buildings and too much traffic – which is another way of saying it has too many people – the kinds of people who can’t afford to live in a “nice” town like Wakefield.

That’s the real issue.

Wakefield’s Zoning Bylaws weren’t imposed by some all-powerful alien entity. They come from you. Every change or addition to the town’s Zoning Bylaws must be approved by a two-thirds majority at Town Meeting. Because of zoning’s impact, the two-thirds margin is there to guarantee that it’s really what the people want.

Every single action of the Zoning Board of Appeals, including last week’s decision on the property at the head of the Lake, is based on the Zoning Bylaws that two-thirds of Wakefield voters approved at Town Meeting.

So, who’s the real villain here?

[This column originally appeared in the July 21, 2022 Wakefield Daily Item.]

One Response to “A revolting development”

  1. 1 Anthony Antetomaso

    Actually I’m more concerned with the “Canterbridgianization” of Wakefield. I think we have an element in this town that likes Cambridge but can’t afford to live their cheaper to buy in Wakefield and then invite your friends out to join you and begin the renovations. Cars are evil so roads are allowed to deteriorate. But they all want great school real estate so let’s dump all our dough into new buildings we would T need if we’d just maintain the old ones. It’s all pretty sad. At least I got to live most of my life in a town that the town fathers actually liked.

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