City Council Agenda Highlights (8/7/17)

The agenda for the Cambridge City Council’s summer meeting on Monday, August 7, 2017, is posted online. Since we only hold one Council meeting between the end of June and the second Monday in September, the agenda is long, and I expect the meeting to last well into the night. If you plan to attend, please note that we will meet in the School Committee room at CRLS because the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall is undergoing some updates to the AV system. The meeting will be televised and live-streamed, as always. I am continuing to hold office hours on Wednesday mornings at coffee shops in various neighborhoods around the city. This Wednesday I will be at Porter Square Books from 8:00-9:30am. (All the dates and locations are listed on the calendar portion of this website.) What follows is my summary of the most important items on the agenda:

City Manager’s Agenda

#1 Landmarking 66-68 Otis St.: The Historical Commission has recommended that we vote to landmark the Jones-Hall House, an unusual T-shaped Greek Revival house on Otis St. that dates to 1846-47. It was undergoing renovation by a developer when residents filed a landmarking petition; if we vote to landmark it, then the remaining renovations and any future exterior alterations will be subject to greater scrutiny. I support landmarking this building.

#12 Beekeeping zoning: The zoning regulations for beekeeping are a key part of the work of the Urban Agriculture Task Force. Regulations for beekeeping and hen-keeping have been discussed for over two years. In the proposed zoning beekeeping would be allowed as an “accessory use” citywide within certain dimensional standards. The Council has asked several times for the zoning regulations to be drafted, as people currently keeping bees in Cambridge are doing so without the benefit of any rules for the size and placement of hives and without sanitary inspections that would assure the health of the bees and protect the public’s heath and safety. The Public Health Dept. is still drafting its own set of regulations, which would include notice to abutters; these will need to be formally promulgated. I attended a community meeting last spring at which the Health Dept. presented draft regulations and asked for public comment by mid-June. Now the Health Dept. will hold another community meeting in Sept., and there will be yet more time for comment this fall. I’m frustrated that this process is crawling along, and I hope that we can expedite both the zoning and the health regulations this fall. Then we will still need to conduct the same process for keeping hens.

#13 Outreach on renters insurance: In response to a policy order I filed after uninsured tenants lost all their possessions in the Wellington-Harrington fire last December, the City has started an outreach campaign targeted at tenants to let them know the importance of carrying renters insurance and what types of policies are available. Currently tenants of the inclusionary housing program receive information about renters insurance, but some still decline because of the cost. The staff will look at ways to encourage more tenants to carry insurance.

#14 Short-Term Rentals: We will vote on the long-discussed Short-Term Rental Ordinance. We made a few small changes at a recent Ordinance Committee hearing, and you can read the most recent version here. An online registry of hosts would be created to track compliance with the registration and building safety inspection requirements. Two sticking points remain—whether tenant-hosts need to obtain written permission from their landlords (I think they should), and whether to allow owner-adjacent units to be listed on short-term rental platforms, such as Airbnb. The second point is more difficult. I have supported allowing hosting in one owner-adjacent unit all along, but can understand why some feel it may drive up rents and take units off the rental market. However the additional flexibility can also help homeowners afford to stay in their homes, especially if they can fill gaps between longer tenancies with short-term guests. I am open to a compromise on this point. This has been a thorough and very public discussion, and I look forward to passing these new regulations in whatever form we can agree on. 

Unfinished Business

Pet Shop Ordinance: We will vote on the proposed Ordinance to restrict the sale of animals in pet shops to those sourced through rescue or shelter organizations. I have supported this ordinance all along. You can read the proposed ordinance text here.

Policy Orders

#2 Gas station on Concord Ave and Walden St: This order requests that the City Manager contact the owner of the vacant U.S. Petroleum gas station to inquire what plans are being made to replace this derelict property. The site is within the area covered by the Observatory Hill Village Zoning Overlay Petition, which will be amended and re-filed this fall. 

#3 Protections for Trees on Private Property: I am pleased to see that Councillor Toomey has come around to the idea of adding protections for trees on private property, which he vehemently opposed when I proposed a similar idea in June 2016. In fact, I have already scheduled a Health & Environment Committee hearing for September 26 at 3pm, to discuss this very issue. If you would like to see how strongly and unreasonably Councillor Toomey and others opposed this idea a year ago, you can watch the meeting video (start at the 2 hour-34 minute mark).

#5 Cambridge Community Electricity program update: I sponsored this order to request information regarding the new Cambridge Community Electricity program. Earlier this summer, residents received information about this new group buying program that offers cost-savings and clean-energy alternatives on the supplier side of our electricity, while keeping Eversource as the provider. Specifically, I’ve asked for how many residents opted out of the program, how many opted for the 100% renewable option, and about the response to attempts at consumer fraud (see advisory).

#6 Harvard Square Improvement Fund update: I sponsored this order to ask for information regarding the existing Harvard Square Improvement Fund, which is funded by developers who pay as required by the Planning Board when they are granted a reduction of the required parking ratio in Harvard Square. The funds can be used for public parking facilities, public park improvements, restoration of historic structures, and surface improvements. I would like to know what the current status of the fund is, what projects are underway and planned, and what projects have been funded through this since the fund’s inception.

#7 Opposition to proposed Eversource rate hike: Eversource is currently before the Department of Public Utilities, asking for a significant increase to their distribution rates, which would more than double the base, fixed cost to consumers. I hope that the Council will join me in opposing such a steep rate increase.

#8 Bicycling on sidewalks: I sponsored this order about refreshing stenciled markings where bicycling on sidewalks is prohibited, mostly in busy commercial districts like Harvard, Central and Porter Square. In most of these locations, the “no bikes” stencils on the sidewalks have worn off and need updating. The areas where bicycle riding is not allowed on sidewalks are listed and mapped on the Rules of the Road webpage. In other areas you may pedal on a sidewalk so long as you yield to pedestrians.

#10 Stormwater Permit (MS4) delay opposition: Even though state and federal officials have been working on new stormwater runoff standards for years, the Trump administration decided just days before the new MS4 permit would have gone into effect to delay federal enforcement. The regulations still exist at the state level, and I sponsored this order to urge Governor Baker to begin state enforcement to ensure that municipalities comply with stricter stormwater management standards. This is especially important around the Alewife area. Read this editorial in the Boston Globe.

#14 Bike Lanes: Three of my colleagues sponsored this order, which asks for a formal review of the recent pop-up bike lanes throughout Cambridge. They’ve also asked for staff to meet with neighborhood representatives, and that all further implementation of protected bike lanes be halted. While I feel every project is improved through consultation with neighborhoods, I am frustrated by this order, which undermines our commitment to Vision Zero and ignores the fact that staff have been proactively meeting with neighborhood and business representatives where new bike lanes will be installed. There is very strong public support for expanding our protected bike infrastructure, and this order would move us backwards after a year of significant progress following two fatal bike crashes. It takes time to adjust to any new street layout, and, installation of the 2-way lane on Brattle Street, for instance, is not yet in its final form. I urge patience as we all adjust and the lanes are completed. I was interviewed Thusrday night by the local NBC-TV news in support of the Brattle St bike lanes (see video).

#15 Porter Square Intersection Updates: I sponsored this order, which asks for an update on planned improvements for the Porter Square intersection, where two people—Marcie Mitler and Bernard “Joe” Lavins—died in crashes in 2016. I’ve asked for updates on the coming infrastructure changes, a schedule of work, and details on the expected community process.

#17 Boston Winthrop Tower: Numerous residents wrote to us this week expressing concerns over the proposed 775-foot high Winthrop Tower in downtown Boston, which will likely lead to new Logan flight patterns. I communicated with Massport representatives this week, who are aware of the situation but cautioned that it was too early in the process to know exactly what the impact would be. We will discuss this further at a community meeting I am hosting with Councillor Kelley regarding the airplane noise issue at the Russell Youth Center on 9/7 at 7pm. Rep. Jon Hecht and Se. Pat Jehlen will attend as well.

#18 Public Fund if the Trump Administration withholds federal funding from Sanctuary Cities: This order asks for the City to establish a public fund to be utilized if the Trump administration follows through on threats to withhold federal funding from Cambridge because we have declared ourselves a Sanctuary City.

#22 & #25 Municipal Broadband: Policy Order #22 asks for an update on the City’s plans to possibly implement a Municipal Broadband system to ensure access to high-speed internet for all. Policy Order #25, which I cosponsored, asks for the Municipal Broadband Task Force, which met from February 2015 through October 2016, to be reconstituted in order to embark on Phase II of their work (determining the cost and revenue potential of a municipal broadband network). The consultant’s Phase I study and recommendations can be found here.

#24 Update on the plan to address concerns regarding the sale of liquor licenses: This issue came to the public’s attention this past spring, and I cosponsored this order, which asks for an update on what the City Manager’s office is doing to assist license holders whose licenses are now worth a small fraction of what they cost because of recent policy reforms made by the License Commission. The reforms seems to have been legally correct but the impact on some license holders is great through no fault of their own. See story in Cambridge Day.

#26 Gas Leak: I sponsored this order, which asks for an explanation of what caused the major gas leak on Binney Street on July 28, 2017, which forced the evacuation of over 5,000 people in Kendall Sq. I’ve also asked about specifically what can be done to prevent future incidents that are harmful to the environment and could cause catastrophic damage and loss of life.

Committee Reports

This agenda contains 4 committee reports, which discuss a zoning petition for the redevelopment of 207-227 Cambridge Street, short-term rentals, the opioid crisis, and the Retail Strategic Plan, which came before my Economic Development & University Relations Committee in June.

Petition for Non-Binding Public Opinion Advisory Question on Ballot

Filed by Cambridge Residents for Responsible Elections, this citizen petition seeks to ask voters if they would be in favor of the City adopting a publicly financed election program. If the Council approves this, the municipal election ballot this November would include the petition to gauge the electorate’s support for public financing through a non-binding public policy question. I support public financing; you can read more here.

Public Comment and Viewing Meetings:

Public comment begins at 5:30 pm. Each person is allowed to speak for up to 3 minutes on any agenda item except for communications from other members of the public. You may call 617-349-4280 on Monday from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm to sign up to speak, or sign in when you arrive (before 6:00 pm). To submit written comments, please email council@cambridgema.gov and cc City Clerk Donna Lopez at dlopez@cambridgema.gov. Your comments will appear on the public record (under “Communications”) at the next regular Council meeting.

City Council meetings are televised on Channel 22-CityView and live-streamed on the City Council’s website. Recorded versions of all Council meetings may be found on the city’s Open Meeting Portal.

NOTE:The 8/7 meeting will take place in the School Committee room at CRLS because the Sullivan Chamber at City Hall is undergoing some updates to the AV system.

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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA