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Needham OK’s $8m for long-awaited senior center

By Dan Adams
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2011

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After years of controversy, residents at Special Town Meeting in Needham voted nearly unanimously last week to fund an $8 million senior center on the site of the Needham Heights MBTA lot.

They also approved changes to zoning regulations at the New England Business Center that would allow increased density and taller buildings in the office park.

But they put off adopting the so-called stretch building code, which would have imposed stricter energy-efficiency requirements for new construction and renovations in Needham.

Approval of the senior center proposal came after a years-long battle over its location, design, and funding.

Selectmen Jerry Wasserman and James Healy, though often at odds in the past, made impassioned pleas Monday night on behalf of the project, which officials said will not require raising taxes through a Proposition 2 1/2 override.

“When James and I speak in favor of the same proposal, it’s not a sign of the apocalypse,’’ Wasserman quipped.

He called conditions at the current senior center “shameful.’’

“Our seniors deserve better. The new facility will be 10 or 20 times better than what we have now.’’

Healy agreed, acknowledging that while he is known for his fiscal prudence, he feels the new center would be “a vital asset to the town’’ and should be funded.

“I’ve pored over the details, considered and debated them,’’ he said. “And I can tell you that this plan is prudent, it is reasonable, and doesn’t compromise ability of the town to pay for capital both planned and unplanned.’’

The 20,000-square-foot building will be paid for by borrowing money and temporarily diverting funds from the town’s road maintenance budget. Selectmen decided not to ask Town Meeting to approve a tax increase.

Healy pointed to Needham’s AAA credit rating and ability to borrow at rates around 3 percent as evidence that its finances were in good order and could sustain the project.

The Town Meeting members agreed, overwhelmingly approving funding for the new senior center on a voice vote. Just a handful of members voted nay.

By a 111-96 vote, Town Meeting narrowly decided against adopting the stretch building code, which would require new construction and renovation projects to meet stricter energy efficiency standards. The proposal drew opposition from developers and residents who said it would add to construction costs and encourage tear-downs.

The new building code is among the requirements for joining the state’s Green Communities program, which provides grants to towns and cities that reduce energy consumption and support sustainable forms of energy production.

Proponents, including Wasserman, argued that the code’s requirements were flexible, allowing homeowners and contractors to achieve net energy efficiency gains through a variety of means. Wasserman also said that while construction would cost more initially, the energy savings over time would more than pay that cost.

But opponents said that the code infringed on their right to choose what was best for their own home.

“I went above and beyond, but I did it because it was my choice.’’ said Town Meeting member Gary Kaufman, describing how he spent tens of thousands of dollars adding energy-saving features to his home. “Energy savings are important, but everyone should be able to choose how they want to implement it in their own lives.’’

The selectmen could reintroduce the measure at the annual Town Meeting session in May.

Also at last week’s Special Town Meeting, members approved changes to zoning regulations at the New England Business Center office park that would allow increased density and taller buildings.

The move comes in anticipation of the completion of the “Add-a-Lane’’ project on Interstate 95, an ongoing widening of the highway that could increase interest in commercial and industrial development in Needham. The business center has suffered from vacancies, but still provides Needham with about 10 percent of its tax revenue.

Members and selectmen expressed interest in preempting similar efforts by neighboring towns to lure companies with less restrictive zoning requirements.

“If we fail to seize this moment, the opportunities will go to Wells Office Park’’ in Newton, on the other side of I-95/Route 128, said Board of Selectmen chairman Moe Handel.

“We will have their traffic but none of the benefit.’’