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Amid COVID-19, city borders complicate some responses

Newton City HallJim Davis/Globe Staff

Looking at Newton from above you’d be hard-pressed to find where the city ends and another municipality begins. The centuries-old border cuts through roads, developments, and houses and has consequences for the containment of a virus that doesn’t care about municipal boundaries.

Without the state creating regional guidance, Newton and its neighboring cities and towns have been left to interpret coronavirus regulations on their own, said Newton City Councilor Alicia Bowman. This has led to inconsistencies between communities with school reopenings, outdoor seating at restaurants, and other concerns amid the pandemic.

“I do think that some sort of overall more regional discussion around these items is probably helpful,” Bowman said.


The borders that define municipal jurisdiction in Massachusetts were drawn when the only modes of transportation were on foot or horseback and most people stayed near home, said Garrett Nelson, the director of geographic scholarship at the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library and author of a recent article arguing for a shift away from municipality-led virus prevention policies. But now it’s unlikely “the geographic area somebody uses on a daily basis is all within a single town.”

“In the 17th Century, these towns made a lot of sense because they were a pretty self-functioning, self-sustaining unit,” Nelson said.

Coronavirus enforcement on a municipal level can understate or overstate the level of risk in any given community, Nelson said. Newton is currently in the medium-risk category while next-door Waltham is high-risk, according to the Jan. 14 Weekly COVID-19 Public Health Report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

In reality, crossing the border between these two cities in the middle of a residential community would not immediately change your risk for contracting COVID-19, Nelson said.

Newton resident Annette Kaplan’s house sits right on the border between the city of Newton and the city of Boston. She said she considers herself a Newtonian because that’s where her kids attended public schools.


“When we moved into this house I didn’t have any children who were in public school yet, but it was important to me to know which schools they’d be eligible for,” Kaplan said. “At the time it was, technically, whichever side of the town line the [child’s] bedroom resides in.”

The split property means Kaplan has two addresses for her one home — one in Newton, and one in Brighton — which she said has been difficult amid the pandemic when she is getting more packages and groceries delivered than ever before.

“If it’s not my regular driver, then I often don’t end up getting my package,” Kaplan said. She said the GPS routing will sometimes send her packages to a gas station in Wellesley with the same street address.

Municipal boundaries also can worsen inequalities that COVID-19 exposes by limiting the resources available to low-income communities, Nelson said. A wealthy city like Newton has demand for service workers who may not be able to afford to live in the city, but when a service worker contracts the virus on the job in Newton, they often seek testing and medical treatment in the city where they live.

“We are functionally integrated in terms of people’s movement, but politically, and in terms of resources, each town is still kind of on their own,” Nelson said. “A rich town that mostly has people with the luxury of working at home might be relying on the service labor of people living in a poor town, but that poor town has to bear the burden of taking care of the people who live within its borders.”


The borders of Newton and many Massachusetts municipalities have remained largely unchanged for over a century, Nelson said. Many of the lines that cut through houses and communities have existed since before that land was developed.

Land grants often were marked off using natural boundaries such as rivers or mountains, Nelson said. Newton’s border mostly follows the Charles River on its north, west, and south edges, but its boundaries with Watertown and Waltham are exceptions — both communities control some territory south of the river.

Economic and cultural factors contributed to agreements that gave Watertown and Waltham territory south of the Charles, according to “History of Newton, Massachusetts,” published in 1880 by Samuel Frances Smith. Lines were drawn dividing the land back when it was mainly forest and farmland — using geographic markers such as a “walnut stump.”

These lines stayed mostly constant even as communities sprung up across the borders around 100 to 150 years ago, Nelson said. At that time, “municipal control of development was weaker,” so it was easy for developers to ignore borders when planning new communities.

“Of course, there are consequences for taxation and for voting, but what we think of now as modern planning, like permitting and zoning, those kinds of bureaucratic activities didn’t exist 130 years ago,” Nelson said — “or certainly not the way that we think about them today.”


Earlier this year, a resident wrote the City of Newton about a restaurant on the border between Newton and Watertown she felt was not following social distancing guidelines, Bowman said. The issue was resolved but at first it was unclear which municipality was responsible for enforcing the rules at the restaurant.

Kaplan said the border has caused confusion with her property taxes, a portion of which go to Boston and a portion to Newton, utilities, which get split between the two cities, and mail delivery, which both cities initially said was the other’s responsibility.

“So that’s what comes along with the territory of living in a house that has the town line run through it,” Kaplan said. “We thought it was kind of neat that the town line ran through, but it wasn’t until we tried to get gas and electric and mail and everything that we were like, ‘Oh, wow.’”

Does Newton end at its border? For taxes, school districts, and local representation, the side of that line you’re on matters a great deal. On a community level, it can feel much more vague, but the border can still affect what we see as “here” and “there,” Nelson said.

“The example I always like to give is if one town is holding a hearing on let’s say a proposed development, and somebody from the next town over feels like they’re going to be impacted by it … well their opinion doesn’t count, because they’re not part of that ‘community’,” Nelson said. “These geographies are really powerful in people’s minds.”


Because of how interconnected modern cities and states are, Nelson said he would like to see more cooperation between municipalities in fighting the pandemic.

“I would like to see more substantive cooperation amongst local units of government, whether that’s municipalities or states, in a way that’s not just voluntary,” Nelson said. “To actually see municipalities and states coming together to make binding regional action, to work at the scale of the problem rather than at the scale of their politics.”

Alex LaSalvia can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.