Welcome to this week’s LexObserver news roundup, a quick read you can expect in your inbox every Friday.
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Now, the news:
Week of Nov. 5: Lexington News Roundup
Ongoing police investigations into Thursday morning threat to Diamond Middle School, and, separately, Jewels From the Crown break-in; what to expect at Special Town Meeting next week, and why it’s important to pay attention; a look at the seven proposed zoning articles; COVID-19 weekly numbers (they went down!); community announcements and upcoming events
Phone call Thursday morning threatened Diamond Middle School, but is not considered a credible threat; investigation ongoing
- At 7 a.m. yesterday, the Lexington Police Department alerted LPS that “they received a threatening phone call that involved Diamond Middle School,” according to an LPS community email from Superintendent Julie Hackett Thursday morning. But, “we do not believe this is a credible threat,” she wrote. Still, “out of an abundance of caution,” there were police cruisers stationed on Sedge Rd and Hancock Rd. Officers also went to the building “to provide support, as well as a search of the premises.”
- Per the email, the police department indicated that other communities have received similar calls this month. “The Lexington Police Department is working with the State Police Department’s Fusion Center to identify the source of the threat for which there will be steep consequences,” Hackett wrote.
- Because this remains an active police investigation, Hackett told LexObserver she could not share any other information. Questions and concerns can be directed to her or to Diamond Principal Jen Turner. “There will be follow-up communication if and when we learn more, but please be aware that these types of investigations take time,” Hackett wrote in the email.
Break-in at Jewels From the Crown on Waltham St; investigation ongoing
- There was a break-in at Jewels From the Crown, but everyone is ok, according to a Lexington Police Department representative. They did not have any other updates for LexObserver as of this evening; we’ll try to provide an update in next week’s newsletter.
What are the basics of Town Meeting, and why is this Special Town Meeting worth paying attention to? Select Board Chair Jill Hai weighs in:
(Thanks again to Harry Forsdick for proofreading.)
This Monday, at 7:30 p.m., the multi-evening extravaganza of local government that is Lexington’s Town Meeting will commence — virtually. You can view it live on LexMedia.
What is Town Meeting? Town Meeting is quintessential New England: It’s the “legislative branch of town government, used to enact local laws, pass budgets and authorize spending of town money,” per the town’s website. This process is literally older than the United States itself — Lexington’s Town Meeting has been happening since 1746.
Who votes in Town Meeting? Many readers are themselves Town Meeting Members, and will know how this all works — but for those of you who aren’t and don’t, Lexington has a Representative Town Meeting, which differs from an Open Town Meeting in that only elected Town Meeting Members vote on articles (as opposed to any Lexingtonian). There are 21 citizens from each of nine precincts, as well as eight members-at-large, including all five Select Board Members, State Representative Michelle Ciccolo, State Senator Michael Barrett, and current Town Meeting Moderator Deborah Brown. (So Town Meeting comprises about 200 people representing all the residents in town) When a Town Meeting Member resigns or moves, the candidate in the precinct with the next-highest vote gets the open seat; when there isn’t a runner-up, the precinct caucuses to elect someone else. Precincts 1 and 7 appeared to fill one vacancy each this past week.
The ability to run for Town Meeting next year will open next month, Select Board Chair Jill Hai told LexObserver. Recently, there’s been a lot of turnover — and in the past few years, the diversity of Town Meeting has jumped, which is “terrific,” she noted. Still, “We have a long way to go before it fully looks like our community. But we’re making progress.”
How does Town Meeting work? The Annual Town Meeting occurs each spring. Sometimes, another Town Meeting is scheduled for the fall when urgent articles need to be addressed before the next Annual Town Meeting. This is why it’s called a “Special” Town Meeting. All of the articles to be discussed at Town Meeting are listed on the warrant, a document which is sent out to all Lexington residents; these are the set of proposals Town Meeting Members will debate, potentially amend, and vote on. This fall, there are 17 articles in total on the warrant (far fewer than the ~40 or so that can be typical during the Annual Town Meeting); they include proposals for construction projects such as the long-planned new police station (Article 5), a new Westview Cemetery Building (Article 7); a measure to reduce noise from landscape maintenance equipment (Article 10); and multiple proposed zoning changes (Articles 12-17) — more on those later.
Is there a ~most important article~? Not according to Hai — she stressed that “It’s all important…how we spend our money, how we allocate our resources, what our capital plans are…it goes to our day-to-day life. It’s the exciting thing about municipal government,” which, at the end of the day, can “make [the] biggest changes in everyone’s life — much more so than the state or federal government.”
That said, “every year, there are a couple of articles that get a lot of airtime, and for one reason, or one method or another, make their way around the community at a higher rate than others,” Hai added. While this is exciting, “because then you really know how people feel and what they want [for that article]…then there are other things where we kind of scratch our heads and can’t figure out what the difference was; why didn’t people get the news?” This year, she’s noticed that Article 10, inserted at the request of the Noise Advisory Committee to amend Lexington’s Noise Control code to regulate noise from motorized landscape maintenance equipment, “is probably the thing for which we’re getting most correspondence.” She hypothesized that this could be partly because with remote work, “we’re all aware of it more” as a matter of “everyday wellbeing.” Additionally, the “dual constituency” also likely drives engagement; “Residents are both the consumers of landscaping…[and] the providers — there’s a lot of small local businesses who are landscapers. So I think you have both sides of the concerns reflected within the population.”
Some of the articles appear on the Consent Agenda as well as the Warrant. What’s the Consent Agenda? If you attend other public meetings in town, you’re probably familiar with the consent agenda; these are articles that are proposed to just be addressed by a single vote, instead of with a protracted process of discussion, either because they’re being postponed, or not expected to be controversial or generate much debate. The consent agenda can save time, but members still have the chance to ask questions about its articles. Additionally, if 10 or more Town Meeting Members want to have an independent vote, they can request that an item be removed from the consent agenda.
There are four articles on this year’s consent agenda: articles 2, 6 (comprised of 6a, 6b and 6c), 8 and 11. Article 2 and Article 8 are both being recommended for “indefinite postponement”; that means they won’t actually be addressed at this year’s Town Meeting. Article 2, “appropriate for prior years’ unpaid bills,” is being postponed for the ideal reason — this year, there are no unpaid bills, Hai said. Sometimes, since the budget is passed in April, anticipated costs aren’t always equal to actual expenditures, which is why this article can sometimes be necessary, she added. Article 8, “Climate Action Plan,” is proposed for postponement because the Sustainability Director, Stella Carr, recently left for a new job — and since the town is in the process of hiring a replacement, “it felt appropriate to pause this and let whoever comes in new to the position lead the project from inception, instead of giving them something that has a tiny start to it, but may not be exactly how they would envision it,” Hai explained. Article 6, “appropriate for community preservation projects,” and article 11, “easements for the Town of Burlington,” already have unanimous support from several relevant committees.
I’m not a Town Meeting Member. Does Town Meeting really matter to me? Absolutely, because if you pay attention, and share your thoughts with your representatives, town government — not just Town Meeting, but other boards and committees — can do its job and serve you better, Hai said. “The more people are informed and the more questions that they ask or the more opinions that they share with their elected representatives, the better the representatives can represent them,” she said. “It’s really hard to know necessarily what everybody you’re elected to represent wants, thinks, needs, feels, so the more that residents are informed and reach out, the better off everyone is, because we all make more informed decisions.”
Turnout from non-Town Meeting Members tends to vary from year to year, she added. “Obviously, frankly, more is always better; the more people who are engaging, the better off we all are.” While currently, “engagement is good — we’re certainly getting a lot of participation on a couple of different things for this time —” this engagement does not extend to every article, Hai reiterated.
It can actually be easier to be engaged and informed for a Special Town Meeting, since there are fewer articles; at the Annual Town Meeting in the spring, “it’s harder to keep track of all of them if you aren’t already engaged in some way with what’s going on in government,” she said. She recommended Citizens’ Academy, a free ten-week program which begins each year in late August or early September, as an excellent way to learn how municipal government works on committee and professional levels, and how to get involved — as well as a way to simply learn and understand, as a resident, how town taxes are spent.
Ok, so how long is it going to last, and what are they going to talk about each day? The order of listed warrant articles is NOT the order in which articles are discussed. In the warrant, articles are “clumped” by category, Hai said; zoning articles together, financial articles together, sections on capital, sections on citizen articles, etc. The order of article discussion, on the other hand, depends on logistical factors such as when presenters are available, as well as ensuring a “date certain” that is set in stone for articles when public interest is expected to be high — as the name suggests, a date certain does not change even if Town Meeting is ahead of or behind schedule, Hai explained. There is a proposed Town Meeting schedule, though it is subject to change; this schedule specifies as many as five evenings for Town Meeting — Nov. 8, 9, 15, 17, and 18. However, if all miraculously goes according to plan, only Nov. 8, 9 and 17 will be needed; Nov. 15 and 18 are overflow days.
- According to the preliminary schedule, this is when each article will be reviewed:
- Monday, Nov. 8:
- Planning Article 12: Structures in yards
- Planning Article 13: Equity & permitting
- Planning Article 14: Solar systems
- Article 5: Police station
- Tues., Nov. 9:
- Planning Article 15: OSRD
- Planning Article 16: Residential parking
- Consent agenda (subject to Select Board approval):
- Article 2: Prior years’ unpaid bills (indefinite postponement)
- Article 6: Community Preservation projects a, b, and c
- Article 8: Climate action plan (indefinite postponement)
- Article 11: Easements – Town of Burlington
- Time permitting:
- Financial Article 3: Stabilization funds
- Financial Article 4: Amend FY2022 budgets
- Mon., Nov. 15: overflow
- Wednes, Nov. 17:
- Article 9: Mount Independence Historic District
- Citizen Zoning Article 17: Sustainable design – Hartwell Avenue
- Time permitting:
- Financial Article 7: Westview Cemetery
- Article 10: Noise – Landscape equipment
- Thurs., Nov. 18: as needed for any unfinished business.
- Monday, Nov. 8:
Overflow can happen when debate stretches on, and when there are many proposed amendments from the floor, Hai said; Town Meeting uses Robert’s Rules, which require 30 minutes of debate for an amendment, then a return to open debate, etc. — so things can take a while.
If I miss something or can’t make it, what options do I have to find out what happened? LexMedia will be recording Town Meeting and posting it to their website and YouTube channel, and LexObserver will be attending each meeting and attempting to make sense of it all in the newsletter for the next two weeks (or as long as things take).
Town Meeting is “one of those great things about living in Lexington…it doesn’t get any more Americana than the opening of Town Meeting,” Hai said, between the Lexington Minutemen marching in with their dress uniforms, flags and muskets, and the William Diamond Fife and Drum Corps playing the national anthem. “It’s particularly nice when we can do it in person, and the Minutemen really parade through, and the Fife Drum Corps parade through, and we all get to stand…it’s that wow factor. So I’m hoping we can all be together in person for the spring; I’m hoping this is our last virtual Town Meeting. But I just encourage everyone to participate, or to at least tune in and listen and read and have your voice heard.”
Five of the 17 articles for the Special Town Meeting Warrant are zoning changes of varying kinds put forward by the Planning Board (and a sixth zoning article is a citizen petition that they recommended for approval). What do these articles mean? Planning Board Chair Charles Hornig explains:
Articles in the Town Meeting Warrant cover all kinds of topics. But one category of articles proliferates on this fall’s agenda: Articles 12-16 were all submitted by the Select Board at the request of the Planning Board, and propose zoning changes of varying scales and types. Article 17, though submitted by a citizen petition, also proposes a zoning change and has the official approval of the Planning Board, as voted 4-1 at their meeting Nov. 3. Planning Board Chair Charles Hornig walked LexObserver through each article — why the Planning Board is introducing it, and how it fits into the grand scheme of zoning and town planning in Lexington.
Article 12: Structures in yards This article, a collaborative effort between the Building Department and Planning Board, would make changes including: adding a definition of “fence”; limiting the height of fences and retaining walls along a street and near lot boundaries; allowing structures enabling access for disabled persons anywhere on a lot; prohibiting structures that obstruct views on the street; and clarifying that structures other than buildings are allowed in minimum required yards as long as they’re subject to height limitations. This article was introduced during this year’s Annual Town Meeting in the spring, and “has been reworked to address the increasing number of building permits and the increase in the size of homes constructed in Lexington,” according to a report about this article. Many of these larger homes need retaining walls “to act as barriers and hold land,” yet people have also expressed concerns about retaining walls. Hornig said the article “evolved a fair amount since [last Town Meeting], but it’s still really about fences and retaining walls near lot lines, and the effects on neighbors and on the streetscapes and so forth.” Now, the article “reflects a lot of discussions that went on in trying to strike a balance between the desires of people who want to put up fences and retaining walls to level their property or to achieve privacy or …people next door to them who don’t like them, or are across the street from them [who] don’t like them for aesthetic reasons or for safety reasons” — the fences can block scenic views, or drivers’ views.
Another part of Article 12 is designed to make a change to a written zoning bylaw which, under state law, has been allowed de facto for a long time. Structures enabling access for disabled persons are allowed anywhere on a lot under state law, and are already allowed in Lexington — but Lexington’s current written zoning bylaw does not reflect this reality. So, “we’ve had an ongoing effort as we touch areas of the zoning bylaws where we want to make the zoning bylaws say what’s actually allowed,” Hornig said. This kind of zoning law change often happens incrementally, he added, in an area where other changes are already happening and the Planning Board is in the process of reexamining a bylaw; so, in this case, the Planning Board was already working on structures in yards, and saw this as a good chance to fix the anachronistic disability bylaw so that the bylaw actually reflects the real rules. This kind of almost “clean-up” can fix ambiguity, incorrect parameters, missing pieces or even grammar, Hornig said.
Article 13: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and permitting This article has a broader scope; it’s driven with the objective of aligning with the Systemic Racism Resolution adopted under Article 30 of this spring’s Annual Town Meeting and Article 8 about disability rights and inclusion and equity from last year’s Special Town Meeting. Article “13 is really more an attempt to …do some very broad picture things in the Zoning Bylaw, to address the concerns that were raised, and those resolutions that apply across the board” to housing as well as other areas of zoning, Hornig said. “Although all inequities caused by government actions cannot be resolved at once, the Planning Board has identified three areas of the Zoning Bylaw to start such efforts,” per the report.
The changes proposed by this article include symbolic changes, such as stating that ambiguities in the Zoning Bylaw should be interpreted and applied to forbid discriminatory effects, and that racial, disability and other equity impacts in permitting decisions should be “addressed and ameliorated.” But, this article also includes a few more specific changes, such as replacing the term “family” with “household” to be more inclusive, and permitting more than one resident in a rooming unit. The article would also update and simplify special permit and site plan review criteria for clarity and consistency; both of these measures require the Planning Board to grant special approval for changes to petitioners. Special permitting gives the Planning Board the authority to deny the change completely — “in broad terms, you use a special permit for something that isn’t normally allowed, but which under appropriate circumstances, the town might choose to allow in a special situation” — while site plan review only allows them to amend the request according to many detailed regulations which must be met; “If it’s site plan review, you’re allowed to do that thing, that’s a given — but we can tell you how you do it.” So establishing consistency in both of these practices is one measure for ensuring that all tenants are treated equitably.
“The changes here [in article 13] are sort of soft changes,” Hornig said; in some ways, “they don’t make any real difference in what happens — but a lot of people have felt that they’re really important to set the tone of the zoning bylaw, to set the tone of permitting discussions, to make it clear to people that we care about diversity, equity and inclusion and that we aren’t going to let arguments about neighborhood social structures mean we don’t do things. That’s exactly what we’re trying to stop doing.” The article mainly focuses on permitting, but “the household thing we also picked up on the way, so to speak, because it didn’t fit anywhere else.”
Article 14: Solar Energy Systems This zoning proposal is intended simply to make it easier for residents to install solar panels, by streamlining permitting and removing restrictions, and follows a related article and discussions from this spring’s Annual Town Meeting.
Article 15: Open Space Residential Developments Article 15 seeks to address a “specific problem, which is [that] conventional subdivisions don’t meet any of the town’s housing goals; what’s something we could do instead, that people could choose to do instead, that better meets [these goals]?” Hornig explained.
Open Space Residential Developments (OSRDs) allow developers more flexibility, and allowing these would be one way to give developers an option for greater housing density — which often accompanies affordability. As the name suggests, such developments also require the preservation of some open land. Additionally, this article would provide incentives for preserving historic buildings; since requiring the preservation of historic structures is not legally possible, Hornig said, incentivizing it is the best option. OSRDs would do this because allowing “flexibility in how you arrange your buildings on a site, and how you arrange the dwelling units within the buildings, permit you to preserve a historic structure.” On the other hand, with a conventional subdivision, building new houses around a road often means you have to tear down an old house that is in the middle of the lot. The article incentivizes historic preservation in three ways: “you get a bonus on your gross floor area, you don’t have to build quite as much affordable housing, and you don’t have to provide quite as much…shared open space.” Essentially, “the flexibility permits it; the three incentives encourage it,” Hornig added.
One Planning Board member voted against recommending this article, and expressed some concerns about inconsistency with the ongoing development of LexingtonNext, the town’s comprehensive plan update. Hornig said previously, the Planning Board “decided…we weren’t going to put everything on hold until the comprehensive plan was all the way done; we were going to continue to do things that seemed appropriate or desirable to do, while keeping in mind what’s going on with the comprehensive plan as we do it. So that’s what we’ve done.” The Planning Board keeps track of all the ongoing work on LexingtonNext, Hornig added; “nothing there is in any way inconsistent with what we’re doing in article 15,” he said, though the housing section of the comprehensive plan has not technically been articulated, and what the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) will specifically recommend is not yet known, he added. “But, it seemed clear enough when we started working on this that some alternatives for conventional subdivisions was going to be appropriate….Some things we may wait to do until the comprehensive plan is done….but this one, I think the board was comfortable enough that this direction is consistent with where we are likely to go in the comprehensive plan that we didn’t need to worry about it.”
In Lexington, “there are more opportunities for subdivision than people think — just not as many as there were 20, 30, 50 years ago.” On average, the Planning Board gets 2-4 requests for subdivision each year, and 1-3 tend to go forward, Hornig estimated, “so there’s a handful each year, and article 15, we hope will mean that we’ll get a few fewer conventional subdivisions from this handful each year, and more smaller dwelling units, more affordable housing, more open space…more preservation of historic structures… all those things that we think are valuable. But…[there’s] no reason to think it will be more than a handful of developments a year,” though it could vary. Overall, if approved, the impact of this on residents would mostly be “a few scattered places where you’ll see slightly different kinds of buildings, in little clusters here and there in town.” (Though, “if you live next to one you may feel differently.”)
Article 16: Residential Parking A detail as small as the number of required parking spaces for a unit can actually be an impediment to dense, affordable development. Lexington currently requires two parking spaces per residential unit, but over 15% of Lexington residents have one or no cars; this article would reduce the number of required parking spaces to one per unit. “Part of it is, well, if you’re a household that has one car, zero car[s], why should you pay for it? You do pay for, directly or indirectly, a second parking space,” Hornig noted. But “The other thing is, it’s about people who don’t live in Lexington…why would we make all of our housing have two parking spaces with, again, that added cost, just because people like us want two cars?” For instance, if a single 30-something year old works at one of the biotech companies in the area, and wants to live near work, “why are we going to insist that the place you live have two parking spaces?” Admittedly, “we don’t have very many 30-something single people living in Lexington — but that’s not a good thing; that’s a bad thing. It’s a lack of diversity,” Hornig said. “It’s certainly needed for the kinds of people that you don’t see in your neighborhood, because they can’t afford to live in your neighborhood.” And, “in a dense, multi-family development…requiring two parking spaces can be a killer;” the requirement has a far greater and more detrimental impact on such developments than on single-family homes.
Article 17: Sustainable Design for Hartwell Ave (Citizen Petition) This article, unlike the other five, was not inserted at the request of the Planning Board, but it is still a proposed zoning change; it would require a limit of on-site fossil fuel combustion for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems for taller lab buildings in the Hartwell Avenue CM district. It was inserted by Town Meeting Member Cindy Arens (Precinct 3) and 99+ other registered voters — at its meeting on Wednesday, the Planning Board voted 4-1 to officially recommend this article for approval, and the Select Board also previously voted 4-1 in approval, with one member waiting to hear the discussion.
All of these changes, including e.g. articles 15 and 16, are “intended to be a specific fix for a specific problem,” Hornig said. “There are other problems in the housing area that are also going to need fixes…We aren’t trying to solve the entire housing problem of the town in one little one zoning article; this is just a piece of the puzzle, and there’s other people working on other pieces…[but] sometimes people seem to think this is the only piece.”
COVID-19 cases down in town and at LPS
- As of today, there were 15 new cases of COVID-19 recorded in Lexington, down from 24 last week, according to the town dashboard. The town continues to have relatively low case numbers, but Lexington’s indoor mask mandate will remain in place until Jan. 15, following a vote to extend it by the Board of Health Oct. 27. The mandate will be reviewed on or before Jan. 15, 2022, and the BOH will continue to monitor and discuss data and trends in the meantime.
- At Lexington Public Schools, both the number of staff or students who were absent for testing positive this week and the number of students/staff quarantining declined again this week. As of yesterday, just 5 staff or students were absent who had tested positive, compared to double that number last week, while 4 students (and no staff) were on quarantine, compared to 9 students last week, according to the LPS dashboard. So, many LPS buildings had just 1 or even 0 tested-positive absence and/or quarantine, according to this week’s numbers. As with cases at the town level, case numbers remain quite low overall.
- From Valerie Overton: LexSeeHer, a group seeking to establish a monument honoring women’s contributions throughout history, announced Meredith Bergmann as its chosen artist for the project last Friday. The group expects to unveil the monument in 2023. You can learn more at the LexSeeHer website.
- From the Human Rights Committee: Alongside Lexington Human Services, the group has launched the third annual No Hate November Month. This year’s theme is “I Am All That And More,” and they’ll hold a virtual community discussion to share thoughts on featured interviews about “individuals with unique stories of struggle and resilience” this Tuesday, Nov. 9, at 5 p.m (LHS students will receive service hours). Also, the community kindness challenge calls on you to share empathy and kindness with others every day. You can learn more here.
- Next Thursday, Veterans Day, there will be an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) History Inclusion Benefit Concert at Lexington High School at 7:30 p.m. The concert is being organized by high school students from the Greater Boston Area, and the students are inviting Asian veterans as honorable guests, per the event description. Learn more and get tickets ($12) here.
- Reminder that you can get FREE COVID-19 PCR testing provided by PhysicianOne Urgent Care tomorrow, thanks to a partnership on post-Halloween testing between Lexington and Belmont.
- Also: Now that the Pfizer vaccine is officially authorized for 5-11-year olds, LPS will hold multiple vaccination clinics starting Friday, Nov. 19 (two weeks from today.)
That’s a wrap for today. Was this roundup useful to you? What do you want to see in this email next week? Let us know, and please, please ask your friends to sign up and donate too! Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with tips and questions anytime. As always, you can also check out and share our website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.
Nicco Mele, Sophie Culpepper, and Sarah Liu