Brookline Town Meeting members will face a number of key decisions when the annual session opens Tuesday night, including whether to earmark $1 million to study expanding the Driscoll School, examining the town’s taxi licensing system as it converts to medallions, and debating the capacity of a proposed seven-story parking garage near the MBTA’s Green Line stop in Brookline Village.
The warrant also features articles that would amend zoning bylaws in certain residential areas to ensure future homes are in keeping with the scope and feel of their neighborhoods, curtail smoking among teens by prohibiting it near Brookline High School and raising the smoking age from 19 to 21, and enact a new noise bylaw that would impose fines starting at $50 for violations.
At a Town Meeting preview discussion last week, one of the most heated arguments centered around a budget item that would allocate $1 million to study renovating Driscoll School to better accommodate a growing student population that would have the school system bursting at the seams.
District administrators say enrollment in kindergarten through Grade 8 has surged 30 percent in less than a decade, and town officials may seek property tax increases to cover a combined cost of $140 million to expand the Driscoll and Devotion schools, as well as a yet-to-be-determined cost to add space at Brookline High.
Although School Committee officials say approving the money now would send signals to the state’s funding authority about the seriousness of the town’s desire to expand the Driscoll School, some residents questioned the timing.
Perry Stoll, whose children attend Driscoll, said the town likely will not find out if it can continue pursuing state funds for the project until the fall. If the state invites Brookline to take the next step toward obtaining assistance, the fall Town Meeting session could then vote to approve the $1 million study, he said.
“The guidelines are very clear: You should only vote to fund a feasibility study once you’ve been invited to eligibility,” he said during Wednesday’s gathering.
But School Committee member David Pollak said there is no certainty that the state’s decision would match the fall Town Meeting’s schedule.
“It could be later, or sooner; we don’t know,” he said. “We need to continue moving steadily forward with plans in place.”
Stoll struck deep at the heart of the issue for many Brookline parents when he cited fears that the Driscoll School’s expansion could spiral out of hand, and town officials might push to have the school host more than 1,000 students.
“The permanence of a thousand-plus-person school just pulls at my heart; I can’t stand it,” he said. “As you keep increasing the size of our schools, you pull apart the connection of its community.”
Aside from school expansions, Town Meeting members have another contentious development conundrum on their hands. A developer’s decision on whether to proceed with a commercial building near the T’s Brookline Village Station may hinge upon a zoning change that would allow a seven-story parking garage on the Brookline Place site off Pearl Street. The garage would house 683 spaces for a Boston Children’s Hospital-owned medical offices development, said Selectman Neil Wishinsky.
However, opponents say the number of garage parking spaces should be slashed as a way to promote the use of public transportation, walking, or biking to reach the commercial development.
“We should limit the number of parking spaces as part of the process to encourage people to come to work in other ways than driving,” said Town Meeting member Andrew Fischer, who invoked images of Cambridge’s Kendall Square and the Longwood medical complex in Boston in seeking to cut the number of spaces in half.
Wishinsky said the town already negotiated with the developer to reduce the original plan for more than 800 spaces. He said if the town applies more pressure, the developer would likely drop the project, which Wishinsky said would cost the town about $2 million in annual tax revenues.
“If this is reduced 50 percent, this project will not happen,” he said. “We pushed, they pushed, and I think we have them as far as we can push them.”
Another article seeks to repeal the Board of Selectman’s authority to sell medallions, or permits, to operate a taxicab.
Brookline has been studying and preparing for a conversion to a medallion system, which both Cambridge and Boston use, since 2006. Selectman Ken Goldstein said holding a medallion would allow local cab companies to raise funds to replace their fleets with much-needed newer hybrid taxis, and install credit card machines.
“Right now, they have no equity, no ability to go to the bank and get money,” he said. “The taxi operators came to us, and asked us to do what’s done in most major markets — to switch to a medallion system. They said that would give them the property right, and then they’d be willing and able to invest.”
Goldstein said the town would also stand to make up to $15 million on the initial sale of the medallions.
“This not only gets the job done, but creates a market that also scores the town some major revenues,” he said.
But Town Meeting member John Harris, who submitted the article, said the price of a medallion has skyrocketed in Boston and Cambridge to more than $500,000, and he worries that a potential high cost in Brookline, coupled with new competition from ride-sharing services Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc., could threaten small local taxicab companies.
“This is a 1930s solution to a 21st-century problem,” he said. “It’s not the way to go.”
Not all transportation issues discussed Wednesday dealt with cars. Frank Caro, with the Brookline Community Aging Network, submitted an article that would increase enforcement of existing bylaws that require shoveling and treating slippery sidewalks within three hours after a snowfall.
“Some property owners are not doing an adequate job of complying with the town’s bylaw requiring they remove snow from sidewalks and keep them in nonslippery condition,” Caro said.
But Lea Cohen, the outgoing chairwoman of the Brookline Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, said imposing such a law would unfairly target all local businesses because of a few “bad apples.”
“Let’s work together on this rather than adding a layer of enforcement,” Cohen said.
Another measure heatedly debated would create a Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Relations Commission and Department, which would replace the town’s Human Relations/Youth Resources Commission and Division, whose mission has become outdated and somewhat convoluted, Selectwoman Nancy Daly said.
The new commission would focus on diversity-relation issues, as well as programs to educate youths about diversity, Daly said. It would also create a town diversity officer.
“We tried to hone it a bit, make it more relevant,” she said of the new commission.
However, Mariela Ames, the current Human Relations-Youth Resources Commission’s chairwoman, said she does not believe the article would do enough.
“We are not being responsive, or seriously addressing issues that need addressing,” she said.
Town Meeting will begin Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Brookline High School.