newton_highlands_t_stop-300x225The Newton Highlands Neighborhood Area Council (NHNAC) posts  detailed minutes of its monthly meetings on the City’s website.   I should know, because I’m the Council’s Secretary and I’ve been drafting these minutes in excruciating detail for the past five years. It’s one example of how truly open and accessible we are and I will have more to say about that later.

One reason I’m posting this is because I think people should know what we do and why it is so beneficial for the Highlands and the entire City that area councils prosper in the years ahead.  Our area council spends almost all its time attracting people who need our help rather than promoting what we do.

The second reason I’m posting is because the Charter Commission is currently considering our future status in a revised City Charter.   I’m not going to dwell on Jerry Reilly’s recent post suffice it to say that we are all a bit guy shy about the Commission’s intent after their unanimous straw vote to eliminate the 8 Ward Councilors.  This cuts close to the bone because of the very close and productive working relationship we have with Ward 5 Councilor John Rice and with Ward 6 Councilor Dick Blazar who are both ex-officio members of our Area Council. 

Formal requirements for openness, responsiveness, accountability, inclusiveness and transparency are some of the things that distinguish area councils from other neighborhood groups and village associations who, often have deeper roots in their communities than we do and who do many great things that we do not do  We are chartered by the City of Newton and must adhere to all of its open meeting laws and regulations.    We can’t and don’t want to do anything in secret or with a restricted membership.  We must hold all our group deliberations in public and to be as responsive as we can to any homeowner or resident in our service area that approaches us on any public matter related to Newton Highlands.    We are elected every two years by the voters or Newton Highlands and can be replaced anytime the voters are in a mood to do so.  

Everyone knows about the festive Highlands Village Day we hold each June; but we do so much more that isn’t nearly as visible to the general public, and we do it responsibly and inclusively.  The three other area councils could just as readily write about their equally productive and successful programs     I also don’t want to minimize or discount the contribution that others outside our Council have made to these projects.  I only stress that our Area Council provides an accessible and trusted focal point for advancing a range of Newton Highland issues because it is open and accountable to everyone in the Highlands regardless of where they stand on a particular issue.  

If the following stories make you like what we do,  if you enjoy our Village Day,  or if you have ever done good things with us in the past, please take a few minutes to write the Newton Charter Commission at [email protected] and let them know you want to keep area councils alive and well in Newton’s future.

1.  Campaign to Make Newton Highlands MBTA Station Fully Accessible:  Area Council member Robert Solomon has been a one man catalyst for advancing this, but we have all spent time on it.  Robert and other Council members spent many hours over many weeks and months working to advance this with the MBTA, other State transportation officials, a range of officials at City Hall, Representative Ruth Balser, and members of the Newton City Council .  Robert detailed just how bad the current station is for people in wheelchairs, walkers or crutches. He used the auspices and manpower of the Newton Highlands Area Council to organize community meetings and forums.  The result was a concerted push that ended with the State approving $7,000,000 for this critically important project.  This simply would not have come as far as it has without Robert’s determination to make it happen, his willingness to organize support from a lot of different quarters and to involve the full Newton Highlands Area Council in moving it forward. 

2. Zervas Traffic Plan:    We held multiple joint community meetings with the Waban Neighborbood Area Council in response to concerns by residents of the streets that surround Zervas School about traffic and student safety when the new and enlarged school finally opens.  The school consultants initially wanted to widen Beethoven Avenue to 3 full lanes and they wanted to add a turning lane that residents and the two area councils felt certain would be a serous safety hazard for kids crossing the street.    Because of the efforts of the two area councils, the latest version of the plan is much more neighborhood friendly and includes modifications that have been endorsed by Ward 5 City Councilor John Rice.   This will eliminate both the 3 lane roadway and the turning lane and will cost less to build than the original plan.  The money that’s saved will allow the City to add a set of new pathways in Cold Springs Park and enable more students to walk safely to the School on an auto free pathway.     

3.   Cold Springs Dog Fence:   We helped resolve a five year conflict at the old Cold Springs Park involving dog owners who exercise their dogs at the park and neighbors in homes surrounding the park who continually complained about off-leash pooches roaming through their yards.   Meetings and shouting matches between the two sides consumed several of our monthly meetings, but we gradually worked with both sides and the City’s Park and Recreation Department to hammer out an acceptable solution. The result was a compromise that resulted in the construction of a huge oval fenced in area.  This prevents almost all of the dogs from straying outside the fenced area while allowing them to exercise freely in a large space.  I walk to Cold Springs on a regular basis and always make it a point to ask dog owners what they think of the fenced in area.   I have yet to find one dog owner that doesn’t think it’s a big improvement.

4.   Walnut Street Parking ,Trees and Bridge:  Responding to intense public concern, we helped focus an effort that ultimately banned parking  on a dangerous stretch of Walnut Street between 4 Corners and the Village center.   We also helped citizens reverse an initial plan by the City that would have removed several large and healthy trees along the same stretch of road as part of a road widening scheme.  Both efforts helped preserve the physical character of Newton Highlands along one of the most bucolic roadways leading to the village center.  We have also been deeply involved in a multi year project to improve the safety, appearance, utility and public access on the Walnut Street MBTA bridge.  

5.   20/20 Vision Meeting for the Crystal House Bathhouse:  The 80 year old Crystal Bathhouse has been a decrepit eyesore for several years.  There is a lot of public support for putting something better in its place. It is only open a few months in the summer for swimming despite its location on one of the most placid settings  in the entire City.  Several members of our Area Council worked with the Crystal Lake Conservancy and other area councils to organize and promote a community forum in September that involved intense media outreach and door-to-door canvassing throughout the Highlands and Newton Center.   This brought together a wide range of speakers including Mayor Warren, our State Representatives and State Senator, many City Councilors, City Department heads and staff, members of all 4 area councils, community activists and residents from all parts of Newton.  We devoted several monthly meetings to organizing this project.  We focused on building a new and enlarged bathhouse with steps to make certain that the swimming program is fully preserved, that full public access is guaranteed, and that concerns of nearby residents about noise, traffic congestion and parking are fully considered.  Things are off to a strong start. 

6.  Safe and Accessible Crosswalks and Sidewalks:   I haven’t been to even one Area Council meeting during the last 5 years where the subject of safe and accessible crosswalks and sidewalks hasn’t been a topic of debate and concern.   Citizens come regularly to  identify problem areas and we have been able to work closely with the City to prioritize, research, monitor and fix the most glaring problems.  I can count at least a dozen sidewalk and crosswalk areas where we have made a real contribution to moving projects forward.

  7.   The Proposed Newton Highlands Local Historic District (LHD):  With volunteer help, we have almost finished researching reams of regulations, City and State ordinances, historical and architectural inventories of individual houses, related technical data and supplementary documentation needed to begin a village wide discussion on whether to create a local historic district (LHD) in Newton Highlands. We are proposing that discussion of a possible LHD center around approximately 240 dwellings on streets with a large number of historically significant homes. We have already held two well attended community meetings and a very successful fundraiser that focused on the architectural treasures of the Highlands and a range of benefits and requirements associated with community approval of a new district.   We will have much more to say about this in the very near future suffice it to say that the main part of our outreach will be door-to-door canvassing or other forms of direct contact with the owners and residents of all the 240 dwellings in the proposed district.  It’s obvious we wouldn’t be doing any of this if there wasn’t strong support for a local historic district within our area council and beyond, but we also know that we can’t fulfill our obligations to the people of Newton Highlands without making certain that all affected homeowners have input into whatever decision is reached on this.   This is the way area councils are supposed to operate.  

Again, I apologize (kind of) for the length of this post, but as I noted at the outset, we don’t often toot our own horn.   And again, if you would like to help save area councils in Newton, drop a line to the Newton Charter Commission at [email protected]

All the best,

Bob Burke, Secretary, Newton Highlands Neighborhood Area Council