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In my role as president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, I’m often asked, both on Village 14 and elsewhere, if the opinions I express on this (independent) blog and elsewhere, represent my personal values or the interests of the businesses and nonprofits who pay my salary.

For example, just last week someone asked I opposed the proposed ten-cent paper bag fee because big corporations don’t like them, or if I personally thought it was a bad idea.

Or when Garden Remedies was looking for a special permit to open a medical marijuana clinic on Washington Street, it was suggested that I only supported allowing it to open so close to a place where children hang out (Cabot’s Ice Cream) because Garden Remedies is a chamber member.

And, of course, during the Austin Street and Washington Place debates, Village 14 participants have asked  if I really thought these projects were good for Newton, or if was I merely in the “developers’ pocket”?

I’ve answered these questions many times here so I won’t go into them now (unless someone requests clarification in comments). But I will say that my experience puts me in a unique position to wonder about Ward Two City Councilor Emily Norton’s professional positions, a question we’ve discussed here before that came up again over the weekend,

As we all know, Norton is one of our city’s and state’s most visible and articulate environmental leaders.  But as we also know, Norton was also one of the most visible and articulate opponents to two smart growth projects in her ward — Austin Street and Washington Place — and to transit oriented mixed use projects overall.

Given that leading environmental researchers and advocates see smart growth projects as critical to combat climate change — and that Norton is the Massachusetts Director of one of the nation’s leading environmental groups, the Sierra Club — I never understand this contradiction  .  

In response over the years, I’ve accused Councilor Norton of hypocrisy; suggesting she was sacrificing her green principals to cater to her NIMBY political base.

But after reading this article in Friday’s New York Times,  perhaps I need to apologize to Norton for suggesting she’s a hypocrite, which isn’t to say that I don’t still have questions.

(As an aside, Councilor Norton has told colleagues she believes I am trying to get her fired from her Sierra Club job. Nothing could be further from the truth. By all accounts,  Norton is doing a great job at the Sierra Club. What I want is for her to join virtually every other local environmental advocate — and council colleagues who also prioritize the environment when voting — and reverse her opposition to transit-oriented housing in Newton.)

The Times article is about a political fight over transit oriented housing and the “surprising” fact that the Sierra Club opposes the plan because, according to Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club’s national organization, the proposal overrides neighborhood concerns, the very same argument Norton has used in Newton.

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s an audacious proposal to get Californians out of their cars: a bill in the State Legislature that would allow eight-story buildings near major transit stops, even if local communities object.


The idea is to foster taller, more compact residential neighborhoods that wean people from long, gas-guzzling commutes, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.


So it was surprising to see the Sierra Club among the bill’s opponents, since its policy proposals call for communities to be “revitalized or retrofitted” to achieve precisely those environmental goals. The California chapter described the bill as “heavy-handed,” saying it could cause a backlash against public transit and lead to the displacement of low-income residents from existing housing.

Based on this article it appears that, by opposing Austin Street, Washington Place and other smart growth projects, perhaps Norton is simply aligning with the people who pay her salary.

Of course,  we don’t really know if:

  • Norton opposes transit oriented housing in Newton at the Sierra Club’s direction, or
  • If she was hired by Sierra Club because she shares their philosophy, or
  • She came to her position independently and it just happens to align with the Sierra Club’s position (and both just happen to be out of the mainstream of environmental thinking).

Personally and professionally, I disagree with Norton’s — and apparently to the Sierra Club’s — failure to prioritize transit oriented development as a critical tool to help contain climate change..

But as I said at the top, it’s a conundrum I can relate to and in this case only Emily Norton can help us understand.