Organizers of a voter referendum to block Northland Investment Corp.’s mixed-use development in Newton Upper Falls have gathered enough signatures to force the City Council to either rescind zoning approval for the project or schedule a special election to decide its fate.
RightSize Newton, which is organizing the referendum, also filed complaints with Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, the city’s attorney, and the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance accusing Fuller of using the city website and her e-mail newsletter to influence voters’ opinions.
In a statement Friday, RightSize board member Alan Kovacs said Fuller, who supports Northland’s development, has the right to her own views.
“But she does not have the right to use city resources to distribute her newsletter or to disseminate her opinion on a municipal ballot measure using the city’s web site,” he said.
Ellen Ishkanian, a city spokeswoman, responded to a request for comment in a brief statement e-mailed Friday afternoon.
“We are now aware that a formal complaint has been filed with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance and Mayor Fuller will cooperate fully,” Ishkanian said.
The City Council is expected to hold a special meeting Wednesday, Jan. 8, to discuss the referendum petition and potentially set a date for the election, according to City Clerk David A. Olson.
The 14-building project — the largest of its kind in Newton history — would be built on more than 22 acres at the corner of Needham and Oak streets. Plans call for 180,000 square feet of office space, 115,000 square feet of retail and community space, and 800 apartments, including 123 affordable units and 20 units designated as workforce housing.
Supporters view Northland’s plan as an opportunity for new affordable housing and commercial growth in the city. Critics question the scope of the project and worry about its potential impact on local neighborhoods.
After the City Council approved a special permit and zoning changes for Northland’s project in early December, RightSize Newton spent the next few weeks gathering signatures supporting the referendum and turned them over to the City Clerk’s office Dec. 20.
Olson said his office already has certified more than 3,000 signatures — enough for a successful petition to the City Council. He expected to finish certifying petition signatures by the end of the week, he said.
Once that process is done, voters will have two days to contest those signatures, and any challenges will be reviewed by the city Election Commission, he said.
The referendum petition requests the City Council to vote to rescind its approval of the zoning changes for Northland’s project. Support from two-thirds of the council’s 24 members would be needed to pull the plug.
If councilors decline to do so, they must set a date for an election for voters to decide the matter.
Council President Susan Albright, who supported the Northland project, said she will ask councilors to begin deliberations on the Northland referendum next week.
“I am sad that this has come to a referendum as this is not a good way to govern a city,” Albright said in an e-mail Thursday.
The council will have to take two votes. The first would be on whether to rescind its approval of Northland’s zoning, she said. If the council doesn’t change its vote, it will have to decide on a date for the special election.
Albright said one option would be to schedule a Northland special election on March 3, which would coincide with the presidential primary.
“In order not to rule out March 3 by inaction, we will begin the discussion immediately in order to give the Clerk enough time to plan for that early date should that be the outcome of the vote,” Albright said. “However, all the options will be on the table.”
The council also could time the Northland vote with the next municipal election in November 2021, or set a special election within 120 days, Olson said.
The council votes came after more than a year of negotiations with the developer, which agreed to a traffic management plan, a shuttle to the Newton Highlands MBTA stop, plus $1.5 million toward work at the Countryside Elementary School, among other improvements. Ten acres of the property would be reserved as open space.
Fuller highlighted the project’s amenities in a statement last month. Aside from creating more housing and commercial space in a plan designed to meet strict environmental standards, the developer has pledged millions to fund local improvements, she said.
The project also would come just as the state’s transportation department is about to spend $30.5 million on rebuilding Needham Street and Highland Avenue, she said.
If voters rescind those zoning changes, though, Fuller warned that Northland could come back with a development under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law.
Such a project could have up to 646 units, Fuller said, but “most likely with fewer of the positive elements of the currently approved project.” It would also not be subject to zoning restrictions on height and density, she said.
“If this gets to a ballot, I hope you will join me in voting ‘yes’ to allow this project to be built,” Fuller said.
In separate Jan. 2 letters to Fuller and Alissa Ocasio Giuliani, Newton’s city solicitor, Kovacs argued Fuller’s e-mail violated the state’s Campaign Finance Law because she used municipal resources to take a position regarding a ballot question.
He said it was a violation because Fuller said she’d vote for the project, and identified the reasons why she believed the project would be good for the city.
Kovacs requested the e-mail be removed from the city’s website, and that Fuller refrain from using her e-mail or other city resources “for purposes of opposing” the Northland referendum.
He also asked Ocasio Giuliani to issue a public statement that Fuller was not permitted under state law to use city resources to oppose the ballot question.
He also called on the city to issue a statement correcting “several glaring inaccuracies” about the project in the e-mail, including the description of open space and details of the traffic management plan.
“The inclusion of the foregoing inaccuracies makes your violation of the Massachusetts Campaign Finance Law even more egregious, and thus the public needs to be informed immediately that your comments regarding the Northland Development were inaccurate,” Kovacs said in his letter to Fuller.
A copy of Fuller’s Dec. 16 e-mail newsletter remained posted to the city website as of Friday morning: www.newtonma.gov/civicax/filebank/documents/100592
Generally, public resources may not be used for political campaign purposes, including the distribution of unsolicited information, according to Jason Tait, a spokesman for the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
If that information is posted to a public website, it can’t “take on a campaign-like appearance,” he said.
“Our office always urges caution, and if something appears to be advocating beyond providing information, we would generally advise a public official to not have that information on a website,” Tait said in an interview Friday.
The referendum is the latest sign of how divided Newton residents have become over the issue of development, and closely follows a fall municipal election for the City Council where candidates received endorsements based on their views of housing and growth in the city.
The City Council that meets Jan. 8 will be different from the board that approved Northland’s project.
In December, the City Council in separate votes approved a special permit and zoning changes needed for Northland’s project to move forward. Both had the same results — 17 councilors in favor, and seven councilors opposed — Lisle Baker, Allan Ciccone Jr., Leonard Gentile, David Kalis, Emily Norton, Christopher Markiewicz, and Greg Schwartz.
Last fall, city voters replaced James Cote, who supported the Northland project, with Ward 3 Councilor-at-large Pamela Wright. Schwartz lost reelection against Ward 6 Councilor-at-large Alicia Bowman.
Three local ward councilors who also voted for Northland — Ward 3’s Barbara Brousal-Glaser, John Rice in Ward 5, and Cheryl Lappin in Ward 8 — didn’t seek reelection. Voters in those wards picked Julia Malakie to succeed Brousal-Glaser; Bill Humphrey to take over for Rice; and Holly Ryan to succeed Lappin.
RightSize Newton had endorsed newcomers Malakie and Wright in contested council races, while Engine 6, a pro-housing group that supports Northland, endorsed Bowman and Humphrey.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.