To the best of it’s abilities, LWVN follows topics and issues in local government of interest to its members and takes actions or advocates when it believes it to be appropriate based on the policies and programs of the League. We can more effectively do this if members assist us by taking an interest in an issue, following it, attending meetings when possible, and reporting back so that we may decide when action or advocacy is needed. If any member is interested in helping us perform this essential role by joining our Observer Corps, please Contact Us.
2023-2024 Topics of Interest We are Following
Transparency in City Government
In this 29-July-2021 article by Marjorie Arons-Barron, Ms. Arons-Barron laments the loss of local journalism. As time has worn on and community newspapers have shrunk and lost staff, there have been few to hold city officials, elected and appointed, accountable and transparent on what they say and do.
It is LWVN’s goal to ensure that our municipal government is as transparent as possible and accountability is made visible. To this end, the LWVN is actively
- engaging with members of the City Council and the City Clerk to determine how to best increase the transparency of the City Council.
- re-engaging members to join our Observer Corps
- reviewing the city website so as to make recommendations for improvement that will improve access to information that is critical to residents, employees, and business owners who need that information to make decisions on what they need from/do for the city.
More recently, the League of Women Voters of Newton (LWVN) has launched a Municipal Transparency and Accountability Initiative. Over the next 12 months, LWVN will assess Newton’s municipal transparency and accountability, with reference to the needs in our community as well as examples and best practices implemented in other communities. Read here for more information.
Civility in Local Politics
The League of Women Voters is committed to fostering civility in public discourse, and LWVN joins other local leagues by first taking steps to ensure that our municipal elections are conducted with civility and respect to all participants. LWVN has adopted a policy of civility for all its candidate forums, and will be advocating for civility and respect in all local elections.
One way in which to accomplish this goal is by collaborating with the Director of Community Engagement and Inclusion to foster Newton’s core values of respect, diversity, and acceptance to provide educational programs and discussions around positive civic engagement, racial equality, and ways to support a more just society at the local level.
What is Zoning Reform?
Zoning is the set of laws governing such things as the size and shape of buildings, additions and renovations, and what types of activities can take place in which buildings. The City of Newton’s Zoning Redesign project is a multi-year effort to update and rewrite Newton’s Zoning Ordinance.
The current zoning redesign efforts build off of many years of research, study, and engagement. The 2007 Comprehensive Plan recognized the constraints imposed by our zoning rules, which sometimes prove inflexible for homeowners looking to change their property and create hurdles for new development.
In 2011, the mayor and the Board of Alderman created a Zoning Reform Group (ZRG) charged with articulating a process and framework for revising Newton’s zoning ordinance to facilitate the vision in the adopted Comprehensive Plan. The Zoning Reform Group Report created by this group has provided guidance to the overall Zoning Redesign process. The ZRG recommended a three-phase process to develop a plan for reforming Newton’s zoning ordinance:
- Phase I – Reorganize and reformat the current Zoning Ordinance to make it easier to use, resolve confusing or contradictory passages, incorporate illustrations and tables
- Phase II – Comprehensively rewrite the Zoning Ordinance and revise the Zoning Map to address the themes within the ZRG report and to better implement the Comprehensive Plan
- Phase III – Review the new Zoning Ordinance after one year to consider how well it has worked and make coordinated adjustments leading to an ongoing process of regularly scheduled zoning maintenance
Since that time, the City has been slowly leading a comprehensive Zoning Redesign effort to achieve several goals. In April 2020, the City Council’s Zoning and Planning committee reasserted the primary goals of the Zoning Redesign:
- Housing: A zoning code more responsive to a demand for housing that serves a range of incomes; Promote sustainable community development patterns
- Sustainability: Environmental stewardship, fiscal strength and meeting community needs
- Context: Preserve and protect what we like in our neighborhoods; Encourage new development to fit in the context of our neighborhoods and villages.
Updates on Zoning Reform Process
Zoning Redesign is currently focused on village centers.
Beginning in 2021, the City’s Zoning Redesign project began it’s focus on village centers. The first phase of community engagement, which took place from the end of May through the beginning of October, 2021, asked community members: What do you envision for your village center(s)? What goal(s) do you want to guide updates to the village centers’ zoning?
Based on what was heard and discovered during that first phase, City staff presented to the Zoning and Planning Committee (ZAP) an overarching ‘framework’ of twelve proposed changes in this memo released on May 27. ZAP workshopped these proposals and reached consensus on further developing and getting community feedback on them. Read here in more detail a summary of the city memo, merged together with ZAP’s opinions and straw votes for each proposal.
The second phase of community engagement, occurring September-October 2022, the City of Newton collected opinions on the proposed updates to the village center zoning regulations.
As a result of that process, the city put together several proposals for Village Center Overlay Districts (VCOD). The current VCOD proposal set forth proposed zoning regulations for the commercial centers and immediately surrounding residential areas of 12 of Newton’s village centers. It includes three sub-districts with maximum building heights between 2.5 and 4.5 stories,
applied to each village center uniquely, unlike the current zoning, which has the same set of requirements for all village centers. The VCOD zoning is consistent with city-wide goals to increase housing options, support local businesses, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create more market rate, affordable and accessible housing
Read here for more information on the City’s rezoning process.
More information and regular updates about Zoning Redesign can be found at the Zoning Redesign page on the City’s website.
Stay updated: Sign up the city’s Zoning Redesign mailing list.
Elimination of Local Preference Policy for Affordable Housing
Current city policy sets aside 70 percent of affordable units for residents, people who work for the city and public schools, employees of local businesses, and families with children in the city’s schools. A city-commissioned study of three recent housing developments found that selection rates in the local preference pool were higher for white applicants seeking affordable units than for minority applicants.
A reduction in the set aside to 25 percent, which was proposed by city housing officials and political leader, is before the City Council and Planning Board. It comes at a time when Newton is examining how the city can create more access to housing for people of color.
Distribution of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) Funds
The City of Newton is receiving approximately $63 million dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, often called ARPA. LWVN will be following where, when and how those funds are used by the city, and looking to see how the funds align with federal guidelines and the needs and interests of Newton’s citizens.
Information on the City’s plans for the use of ARPA Funds can be found here.
- Topic Meeting: Educational Forum on ARPA Presented by Lizzi Weyant, Director of Government Affairs at the Metropolitan Area Council
Public Buildings/Recreation Areas
- School Construction Projects In March 2023, voters voted to approve two override questions regarding the construction of a new Countryside Elementary School and a new Franklin Elementary School. A third override questions regarding funding of certain improvements to the Horace Mann Elementary School was not approved by voters. Discussions are being held about the potential merger of the Underwood and Ward elementary schools. We will be following developments regarding all of these school projects.