Newton voters will have a lot to consider when they go to the polls this fall — contests for the Board of Aldermen in five of the city’s eight wards, a School Committee seat, and whether to start a Charter Commission to suggest changes in the way the city operates.
When voters decide on Nov. 3 whether to start such a body, they will also elect nine members to start 18 months of work should the question pass. Those interested in running for the commission have until Sept. 22 to submit nomination papers.
But while that question is generating interest, this year’s key local election debate will likely revolve around land use issues.
Five candidates are running for the two at-large seats from Ward 2 on the Board of Aldermen, which will officially become the City Council in January. Ward 2, in the city’s Newtonville section, is where an emotional debate has raged for at least two years over plans to build a mixed-use residential and retail complex on the site of a municipal parking lot on Austin Street.
Ward 2 at-large candidates Jacob Daniel Auchincloss, Jessica C. Barton, and Lynne Lise LeBlanc are challenging incumbents Susan S. Albright and Marcia T. Johnson for the two seats. A citywide preliminary election will be held on Sept. 17 to reduce the field to four.
Ward 2 Alderwoman Emily Norton, a fierce opponent of the current Austin Street proposal, is running unopposed.
There will also be contests in Ward 1, where Allan Ciccone Sr. is running against incumbent Allison Leary; in West Newton’s Ward 3, where Julia Malakie is joining at-large incumbents Ted Hess-Mahan and James R. Cote in the race for two seats; in Ward 5, Waban, where Christopher Pitts is on the ballot with at-large incumbents Brian E. Yates and Deborah J. Crossley; and in Ward 8, where Frank Wolpe is challenging at-large incumbents Richard A. Lipof and David A. Kalis.
On the School Committee, where debate over building a new Zervas School raged for months, Ward 5 member Steven Siegel is being challenged by Susan Huffman. Huffman, of Newton Upper Falls, has written on the Village 14 blog that she opposed the Zervas plan and favors “seriously considering” building a 16th elementary school. Siegel was a proponent of the now-approved plan to replace the school with a new building on the site.
The contests will be played out in the aftermath of polarizing debates over land use that took place over the past year, including not only Zervas, but a failed attempt to pass a one-year teardown moratorium, and failed attempts by the city to become a “safe harbor” from the restrictions of Chapter 40B affordable housing zoning laws.
But the most important debate may involve the Austin Street project. The aldermen have held at least three public hearings on the development, which calls for 68 middle-income or affordable apartments; a 127-space surface parking lot to be controlled by the city; underground parking for building residents; and 5,000 square feet of retail space, including boutique shops and a restaurant.
A final decision on the proposal is expected to be made by in mid-November, after the city’s election, by the current board lineup.
The issue’s post-election resolution doesn’t mean incumbents won’t be taking what voters say at the polls seriously, observers say. For instance, should the incumbents on the board who have not opposed the project win their races handily, the aldermen could take that as a signal that citywide voters are not overwhelmingly opposed to the plans.
If they lose, and candidates who have vigorously opposed the Austin Street plans win, it could tip aldermen on the fence into opposing the project.
The plan needs two-thirds approval by the 24-member board — or 16 votes — for its special permit to be issued.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at email@example.com.