Why do you choose to serve on the Planning Board?
I choose to serve on the Planning Board because it enables me to apply my many years of experience as a realtor helping homeowners, buyers, landlords, and tenants deal with land use strategy, planning, and property value. Needham has given my family a wonderful place to call home, and serving on the Planning Board is an opportunity for me to give back. I also choose to serve on the Planning Board because I see opportunities for meaningful change and areas for improvement in the planning process. I am deeply committed to making a positive impact on our community. I strive to work collaboratively and to be a positive influence on zoning reform and establishing priorities for the Planning Board.
How has your personal background influenced your approach to the role on the Planning Board?
I was born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in a diverse political home with my parents on opposing sides of the political spectrum. I quickly learned that independent and critical thinking was the foundation to establishing my own views based on the values of empathy, tolerance, and resilience. I discovered that positive and meaningful change is the product of rigorous, respectful, and open-minded debate about ideas. I found that effective listening means understanding what is important to the other side, and that curiosity leads to progress. This is how I approach everything I do today.
How do you view the role of the Planning Board?
The Planning Board is a quasi-judicial body. It is responsible for adjudicating applications for site plan review special permits, use special permits, approving subdivisions, and improving Needham’s zoning bylaw. This role is not about my personal opinion. It’s about having a comprehensive understanding of the regulations and laws that are in place and applying them. The biggest challenge is, like a judge, setting aside personal feelings about a project to rule dispassionately on an application based on the evidence in front of us and in accordance with Needham’s bylaw and applicable state statutes. The board is also tasked with promoting zoning reform. After carefully reviewing a zoning bylaw change that serves a wider public good — a process that includes listening to residents — the board presents its recommendation to Town Meeting for adoption.
Looking ahead, how do you think Needham can evolve?
I see several important transformational opportunities for Needham. First, the town is embarking on significant and much needed housing reform in response to the regional need for affordable housing. This process requires us to carefully examine our place in a broader context. Second, as a town we are focused on climate-smart zoning reform that will reduce Needham’s carbon footprint across residential, commercial, and institutional development.
I also am intrigued by the idea of “unlocking” the Charles River. Along a corridor behind Staples, I envision a boardwalk lining the bank of the river from Highland to Central. The area could be a mix of restaurants and patios, an ice cream parlor, a brewery, retail boutiques, a bandstand and open green space. There would be docks to promote water access. We would foster mixed-use vibrancy with medium sized residential buildings ideal for seniors and workforce housing, together with office buildings. This area would allow for fun, unique community-building experiences — including safe places for our teens.
What has Needham done well with regard to development?
Needham has done a good job maintaining a balance between progress and preserving Needham’s strong and vibrant community. Serving on the Planning Board has taught me how difficult finding that balance can be because “balance” itself means different things to different people.
Development and progress rarely satisfy everyone simultaneously, especially at first. However, we often find that perspectives change after a project is complete. For example, many residents were concerned about the Charles River Landing Project, the retail and residential mixed-use project at 50 Dedham Ave., the Rosemary Park and Rec complex, and the Modera apartments, among others. Today, though, the feedback about those projects is mostly positive. I believe the town has done an excellent job of minimizing negative impacts of development.
What are some things you would like to improve with regard to the Planning Board?
I understand and agree with some of the criticism about how Needham has handled development. One of the reasons I am running for re-election is to continue the hard work I began several years ago, when I was first elected to the Planning Board, to improve our open and deliberative process. We have seen how constructive community engagement improves zoning and development. I am also working hard to establish a regular and inclusive planning cycle for the town leading up to Town Meeting in the spring and fall.
With the regional housing crisis, what do you think Needham needs to do to help create options in its housing stock?
I think Needham needs to establish the conditions that promote housing diversity. The solution involves a mix of public and private support across near and medium term initiatives. In the near term, at our spring town meeting, the Planning Board will seek to expand access to accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Currently, ADUs are available only by special permit and are limited to caregivers and family members. Going forward, we want to allow homeowners to rent ADUs by right. The board is also proposing to allow ADUs in detached structures like a garage by special permit. The purpose of the special permit is for the Zoning Board of Appeals to hear from any neighbor who may be affected by the creation of the ADU. Allowing ADUs is an important part of the housing solution, and key to helping our senior population age in place.
Over the course of the next year, I am looking to amend our zoning bylaw to enable 18 units per acre by right along the transportation and commercial spine of the town in compliance with the new MBTA Communities law. Further down the road, I hope to increase mixed use development to incentivize additional senior and workforce housing units in the area behind Staples along the Charles. These larger scale projects will make the greatest contribution toward diversifying our housing stock.
Based on resident feedback, what are some priority issues you believe the Planning Board should address.
Traffic, affordable housing, enacting climate-smart zoning, and easing the residential tax burden are among the core priorities for residents.
Traffic is a common concern when we modify zoning and when we review a development application. Applicants provide their own traffic impact analysis as part of their application materials for our review. On larger scale projects, however, the Planning Board often engages an outside engineering firm to review the traffic impact analysis to help inform the conditions imposed on developers to mitigate traffic impacts onsite and along a broader roadway network. I believe that’s an important part of our application review process. Having served on the Transportation Policy Review Committee, I look forward to implementing a number of changes that will enable the town to plan for traffic in a more thoughtful and open way to ensure public safety.
The Planning Board has already begun a process to bring about housing reform and climate smart zoning, but these initiatives require the public will to bring about lasting and meaningful improvements. That’s why I am committed to establishing a regular planning cycle for the town to create a road map of success.
Finally, the town has important municipal projects that need to be funded to maintain the excellent services Needham provides. We must do this in a way that does not overburden taxpayers. Responsible development can attract new business to town and ease the burden on residential taxpayers.
When you look back, is there anything you would do differently?
In general, I’m very careful and deliberate when making any decision on an application. However, during a hearing that I chaired some time ago, on a night with a lengthy agenda, I prioritized time rather than resident input. I knew that the hearing was going to be continued at a later date, so after the petitioner spoke, I sought a motion to continue before hearing from residents. I quickly realized I was wrong, and when faced with the same situation again, did not repeat that mistake.