Saturday, April 20, 2024

At its Monday night meeting, in a 5-4 vote, the City Council chose to kill a citizen-written climate safety petition over fears that keeping it in committee could negatively impact sorely needed renovations at the Millers River affordable housing project. Unfortunately, this procedural move, initiated by councillor Tim Toomey, effectively precludes the City of Cambridge from considering any climate protection action in the petition through zoning amendments for the next two years. Despite support for many of the ideas in the petition, the majority made it clear that they prioritize reducing unsubstantiated financial risk to developers over protecting residents from scientifically established, life-threatening climate risk. Fortunately, the council preserved the option to reconsider this vote, and today I initiated that process with the city clerk.

Update on Aug. 1,2o18: Zondervan sent a statement that he was informed by the city clerk that he was not eligible to file for reconsideration on Monday’s climate safety petition vote because the council rules say only a member of the prevailing side can file reconsideration. “After reviewing the rules, I have concluded that the clerk is correct,” he said. “I’ve been told the city solicitor will be making a statement that will hopefully provide more clarity on this. While I’m disappointed by this outcome, I look forward to working with my colleagues, the administration and the petitioners on finally considering the items in the petition in detail, and moving them forward through the new advisory committee being created by the mayor and city manager in response to councillor [Tim] Toomey’s policy order. Onward.”

There is universal support for the Millers River project on the council, and I would have moved to kill the petition myself if I had been convinced that keeping the petition in committee would in fact prevent the project from moving forward. But the Cambridge Housing Authority, in a letter sent to the city manager and council Ordinance Committee chairmen just hours before the Monday meeting, did not give a clear answer on precisely how risky keeping the petition in committee would be to the project. The letter stated that adopting the petition before Millers River gets a building permit from the city (expected in October) would risk the project obtaining its financing by a December deadline. Keeping the petition in committee would have precluded it from being adopted; nonetheless, the council was presented with the false choice of voting down the petition to protect the Millers River project from any financial risk.

Toomey’s procedural motion to send the petition to a second reading was in fact intended to ensure the petition could not be filed again for two years. The 5-4 vote constitutes “negative action” on the petition. Under state law, taking negative action prevents any “substantially similar” zoning provisions from being filed for the next two years. Though the precise definition of “substantially similar” remains unclear, a Massachusetts court recently ruled against the Town of Barnstable in a case where the town council took negative action on a zoning petition and tried to introduce a slightly modified version of the petition shortly thereafter.

The initial motion made by vice mayor Jan Devereux to leave the petition in the Ordinance Committee would have protected Millers River while preserving the city’s options in taking action on climate preparedness. The council does not meet again until Sept. 17, so there is not enough time to ordain the petition into law before its Sept. 25 expiration date if left in committee. Though the petitioners could always refile after that date, they had given their word that they would not do so before the completion of the Millers River permitting process. Thus, allowing the petition to expire without taking negative action would not have jeopardized Millers River, and the unfortunate result of the council’s action is that our options to address climate safety through zoning are now severely limited for the next two years.

A memo from the Community Development Department circulated shortly before the meeting provided an update on city planning efforts underway that address components of the citizen petition. Some of those planning efforts are likely to conclude that the best way to address these issues is through amending the zoning ordinance. For example, the memo states that CDD is evaluating the “green factor,” a very popular idea in the petition that has been implemented in Seattle and is being considered in Somerville. If the council’s decision stands, though, implementing the green factor or any other component of the petition through zoning by the city in the next two years is at risk of a legal challenge by affected property owners!

My only goal in filing for reconsideration is to preserve the council’s ability to act on the urgent climate safety issues raised in the petition through zoning. I hope the council will agree that this is the best way to proceed.

Quinton Zondervan is a city councillor and climate activist.