Newton voters who cast ballots for candidates in the March 3 presidential primary will also have another choice to make: deciding the fate of Northland Investment Corp.’s mixed-use development for Upper Falls.
The project was approved by city councilors, who granted a special permit and necessary zoning changes in December after more than a year of review.
But a referendum effort driven by opponents of the project will ask Newton’s Super Tuesday voters to countermand the council’s decision on the zoning change.
The approved project would consist of 14 buildings on 22 acres at the corner of Needham and Oak streets. Plans call for 800 apartments, with 123 affordable units and 20 units designated as workforce housing, plus 180,000 square feet of office space and 115,000 square feet of retail and community space. There would also be about 10 acres of open space as part of the development.
After the City Council gave its okay for the project, opponents of the project then collected enough voters’ signatures to compel the City Council to either rescind its zoning approval for Northland, or schedule a special election for voters to decide.
On Jan. 8, the City Council voted 22-0 to not rescind its decision. It delayed its vote on a special election date until Tuesday, when councilors voted 21-1 to set the Northland special election for March 3. The dissenting vote was from Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Markiewicz.
Lisle Baker, a ward 7 councilor, asked his colleagues to support holding a Northland election on April 7; that motion failed 14-8.
Supporters of the March 3 date for a Northland vote have said it makes sense to schedule it for an election with a high expected turnout; opponents of that date have said voters will be asked to make a decision about zoning and need more time to learn about the issue.
The vote was praised by supporters of the project, including Greg Reibman, the president of the Newton Needham Regional Chamber, and Allison Sharma, chairwoman of Yes for Newton’s Future, a ballot question committee that backs the zoning change for Northland.
“We believe a YES vote will help to positively shape the type of community Newton will be for years to come, and will send an important signal that our city is a forward-thinking and welcoming community for all,” Sharma said in her statement Tuesday night.
While the focus of the debate remains on Northland’s project, the City Council’s handling of the issue has also come under some scrutiny.
On Tuesday, attorney Alan Kovacs filed a complaint with Newton’s City Clerk alleging that the City Council didn’t follow the state Open Meeting Law when it publicly posted a meeting that included discussion of the Northland referendum.
The state law requires government bodies to hold most meetings in public; it also requires public bodies post notices for meetings in most cases at least 48 hours in advance, excluding weekends and holidays.
Kovacs argued in the complaint that when a discussion of Northland was added to the Monday, Jan. 6 council docket, the posting did not follow state law because it was scheduled on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 3.
Kovacs wants the City Council to nullify its actions taken during a Jan. 6 meeting, as well as the subsequent Jan. 8 meeting where members declined to rescind its approved zoning changes for Northland. He also wants the council to redocket the item for a future discussion, according to the complaint.
The Committee for Responsible Development, a ballot question group that runs the referendum campaign, said in a statement Tuesday that the alleged violation “demonstrates that this project, like others in the past few years, have been forced onto city residents without a reasonable opportunity to negotiate the size, scope and impact of a huge development in an already congested part of the City.”
Before the vote Tuesday, Council President Susan Albright told her colleagues that the complaint would not impact their vote to set an election date.
“The council is free to discuss and vote on this item as planned,” Albright said. “And the Law Department would like to meet with us at a future date to discuss a response to this complaint.”
Kovacs, who criticized the Northland project’s size, said in an interview he was concerned about the council’s handling of the development, as well as an opinion by the city solicitor last fall advising councilors to not share their views about the project before a vote.
“I do not believe the process has been fair to the opposition,” Kovacs said. “That has become almost as important to me as my opposition to the project itself.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org