About a year ago, Larry Dennin spotted an item in the local newspaper that really ticked him off: The Board of Selectmen in the town of Holliston appeared ready to halt free trash pickup for his condominium development.
Dennin had led the successful effort only a year earlier to get the town to treat owners of condos the same as owners of single-family homes, who have long had their trash and recyclables collected by the town.
“It’s a question of fairness,” Dennin told me. “The town has one tax rate for all residential property. So why should the town provide certain services to single-family homeowners but not to condo owners?”
The answer is money. Many cities and towns save a few bucks in their municipal budgets by excluding condo developments from trash pickup. Such exclusions can be traced back to the promises developers made — to help secure approval for their developments — that condo owners will pay for trash pickup and snow removal.
Yet local authorities such as Holliston’s three-member Board of Selectmen can step in and offer free trash pickup to condos. Indeed, the town of Holliston’s contract for trash collection mandates that the vendor pick up trash at “all dwellings.”
Balancing Rock, where Dennin lives, is an upscale development of 49 townhouse condominiums built about 10 years ago on the outskirts of town. For years, condo owners paid about $130 a year for trash collection. But that changed in 2015 after Dennin had a chance encounter with one of the town’s selectmen at a Lions Club meeting.
Dennin told Selectman Kevin Conley that Balancing Rock condo owners collectively paid almost $400,000 annually in property taxes without a commensurate return in services — little more than police and fire protection and borrowing privileges at the public library.
“You’re getting shortchanged,” Conley agreed, according to Dennin.
“Well, the town could help by taking over trash pickup,” Dennin shot back.
“Send a letter to the Board of Selectmen asking for it and I’ll support it,” Conley replied.
Within a couple of weeks, Conley made good on his promise. Municipal trash pickup commenced in July 2015.
It was all handled informally at town hall, apparently without public discussion or a formal vote of the selectmen. There was no written agreement between the board and Balancing Rock or between the board and the town’s trash contractor, which apparently added Balancing Rock to its pickup routes without charging the town extra.
From what I can see, that was the first in a series of mistakes made by the Board of Selectmen and its town administrator. Since then, who gets municipal trash pickup has become a hot topic, the subject of intense discussion at half a dozen selectmen’s meetings and Town Meetings.
I interviewed two selectmen, the town administrator, and condo owners. I’ve watched recordings of one board meeting and one Town Meeting and had a nice lunch in the town’s historic downtown.
Holliston is a mostly undeveloped town of about 14,000 residents. But with easy access off Interstate 495, the town is coming under increasing development pressure.
About 30 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts collect trash at condos without charge. Others collect from condos and single-family homes but charge per-barrel fees, or they only collect at single-family homes. And still others have no trash pickup for anyone, leaving it to residents to cart their refuse to a dump.
There are no state laws or controlling court decisions on trash pickup. But most municipalities have a clear policy. That’s what’s lacking in Holliston, however well-intentioned local officials may be.
Word quickly spread that selectmen had granted trash pickup at Balancing Rock, prompting the developer of a still-under-construction condo development to demand the same service in 2016. Selectmen were soon backpedaling furiously, realizing it could cost the town more than $100,000 if they extended pickup service to hundreds of condos under construction or proposed.
Ultimately, the board stripped Balancing Rock of trash pickup service in the fall of 2016, effective slightly more than a year later, on Jan. 1, 2018. Although Dennin is not happy about it, most residents probably can afford it: A two-bedroom unit in Balancing Rock sold last year for $457,000.
That’s not the case in the more moderately priced Regency Park, a long-established condo development where the town has been paying for trash pickup for 10 years (also under an informal arrangement). A two-bedroom unit there recently sold for $165,000. Many people live paycheck to paycheck. Yet selectmen found it untenable to continue trash pickup at Regency Park while axing it at Balancing Rock.
“People here can’t afford it,” said Pat Duffey, a Regency resident. “It presents a real hardship.”
Dennin has been fighting town hall for more than year. After he first got wind selectmen were considering dropping trash pickup at Balancing Rock back in 2016, Dennin contacted Town Administrator Jeff Ritter and asked to be notified when it was coming up for a vote.
That didn’t happen. Selectmen voted three weeks later to rescind trash collection at Balancing Rock. Dennin protested loudly enough to persuade selectmen to discuss it again at a subsequent meeting. Balancing Rock residents packed that room but the result was the same: a 3-0 vote to take away pickup service.
“We got a hearing, but it came after the board took its first vote,” Dennin said. “We didn’t think we could change anyone’s mind after the fact. And we didn’t.”
Dennin and Duffey and others rallied around an effort to reverse the selectmen’s action at the annual Town Meeting this past May. But townspeople voted to postpone the matter indefinitely.
In October, the condo folks won passage of an article to restore trash pickup at Town Meeting, only to be told it was nonbinding because no money was appropriated for it.
Condo owners deserve the same services as single-family homeowners, said Richard Brooks, an attorney with decades of experience representing condo associations. But a lawsuit, he said, probably isn’t going to help because such decisions are the prerogative of the selectmen.
“They face a political battle, not a legal one,” he said.
Dennin has vowed to carry on that political battle.
I hope he wins. There is a superficial logic to excluding trash pickup at new condo developments. That’s what developers generally promise. (Holliston town officials showed me a pledge by the Balancing Rock developer that his development would have no “negative impact” on town services.) But should that promise be binding on subsequent owners, folks like Dennin who had no say in the matter?
Dennin may have purchased his condo knowing it came with no municipal trash pickup. Fine. But why should that prevent him from trying to undo what he considers an injustice? Why shouldn’t he pressure the selectmen to treat him like the thousands of other (single-family) property owners who get trash pickup?
After all, there’s no law against equal treatment.Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.