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Watertown resident accuses local planning officials of favoring developers

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  March 13, 2013 03:45 PM

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A Pleasant Street resident has accused Watertown town planners of a series of actions that favor a developer trying to build condominiums at 192 Pleasant St., which is located across from her home.

Colleen Sexton, who lives at 193 Pleasant St., sent a letter to Michael Driscoll, Watertown's town manager, last Friday alleging that the town has recently booked multiple meetings at the same time discussing the same development, which is a proposal to build 14 condominium units where Bacon Industries used to sit. The allegation is one of many.

Planning board members will discuss the development tonight and will also likely vote on whether to approve it, according to planning director Steve Magoon.

Magoon has denied that he and his staff have taken a one-sided view of the development, which is being proposed by the Burkhard Corporation of Acton.

The proposal is one of several recently proposed, approved, or completed residential complexes for the Pleasant Street Corridor, which previously housed many industrial buildings and companies. The town completed a study in 2008 re-assessing the mile-plus strip, emphasizing that development should focus on a mix of residential, commercial, and retail in the area.

Since then, multiple residences have gone before the board that are either in or nearby the corridor, with a total of about 650 rental units already approved for construction in the Pleasant Street Corridor.

These developments include Repton Place off Pleasant Street with 220 units; Riverbend on the Charles at 270 Pleasant St. with 170 units; and Alta at the Estate at 255 Waltham St. with 155 units.

The department also received a preliminary site review in late January outlining plans for a new 41-unit residential complex at 45 Bacon St., which is in the corridor's district.

Outside the Pleasant Street Corridor but still nearby, town officials have also granted approval to developers at 140 Pleasant St. to build 44 residential units, and approved an assisted-living center in Watertown Square that would add 90 studio and one-bedroom units.

Now, the board plans to discuss whether to approve the 14-unit condo building at 192 Pleasant St.

In her letter, Sexton alleged that the town omitted testimony from some opponents of the project from the minutes of a meeting in January; did not keep minutes up-to-date and accessible on the town's website; and favored the developers by allowing them to continue their hearing from February, when one of the five board members could not make the meeting, to March, when developers will have a better likelihood to gain the four approval votes they need from the full five-member board.

Driscoll could not be reached for comment.

However, Magoon said while he understood Sexton's complaints, neighbors' input is only one part of a broad process that planners use to decide whether to approve development proposals.

"We try very hard to consider everyone’s point of view and interest, but we have to keep in mind the town’s interest in a broad spectrum that isn’t necessarily just about the abutters or neighbors - but their opinions are very important too," Magoon said. "It's unfortunate if she perceives us favoring the applicant. It wasn’t intended to be that way, and I would stress that it isn’t that way."

Magoon said the double-booked meetings - before both the Conservation Commission and the Planning Board - were due to an unusual scheduling change for one of the boards.

"That won't happen again," he said. "The most significant thing that happened in both cases were that they were continued, so both could have the opportunity to be heard before they made a decision."

In reference to Sexton's allegations about the meeting minutes, Magoon said minutes are not always intended to reflect every piece of testimony, noting that residents who speak without verbally identifying themselves are not recorded in the minutes.

He also said that planning board members do not rely heavily on the minutes when making their decision.

"The meeting minutes are intended to capture the general sense of what was discussed," Magoon said. "Minutes don't influence a decision. The planning board is not relying on the meeting minutes to refer to when making a decision on this, because they're hearing it live and making a decision."

Magoon also addressed Sexton's concern about pushing the developer's case a month, which Sexton said gives them a better chance of four approval votes.

Magoon acknowledged that it would be easier for the developer to get four out of five approval votes rather than trying for four unanimous approvals. However, he also pointed out that if one other member could not make it last minute, the developers would not have been able to get a vote anyway.

Additionally, Magoon said it is extremely common for town officials to grant continuances to applicants when they ask, and said it gave the developers more time to work on improvements they needed to make anyway.

"Anytime an applicant requests a continuation, we tend to grant that out of courtesy to them," he said. "There were also a number of things the applicant was working on in design changes, so that gave him more time to work on that."

Sexton and other nearby residents have vocally opposed the development in previous weeks, citing traffic, parking, and the size of the project as main concerns.

The planning board meeting will take place at 7 p.m. tonight at Watertown Town Hall, located at 149 Main St.

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