Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Shop Girl by Kitty Kaufman

As I listened to Sean Lynn-Jones, co-chair of the Brookline Neighborhood Alliance(BNA) tell the story of its earliest days, I thought of a line from Robert Frost's "Mending Wall." For someone who can't remember what was for dinner last night, my parents would be happy they got their money's worth for college. The line I'm thinking about is spoken by the poet's neighbor as they rebuild their common stone wall: "Good fences make good neighbors."

What I can say here about fences is that they do have their usefulness. The good neighbors part is relevant to the BNA. It was at the League of Women Voters and their process of Future Search where, in 2001, the idea emerged for a coalition of Brookline's neighborhoods.

Lynn-Jones, along with co-chair Diana Spiegel, hosts five public meetings a year. "Some are intended to inform on a specific issue, like why snow is plowed up on the sidewalks and what you can do about it," he said. Others are devoted to debates among candidates for the Board of Selectmen, zoning, the Community Preservation Act, development projects, and providing a base of information on "how to get what your neighborhood needs, "he said.

One of their public meetings is dedicated to neighborhood leadership awards. "We like to recognize people who are making a difference," he said, "and it's not always a neighborhood activist." Recently, they gave the award to Erin Chute Gallentine, the director of public works parks and open space, which is responsible for 600 acres of town-owned land. "Our groups were impressed with how much she's improved the way our parks are maintained and renovated," he said.

"Basically, our most important task is bringing activists together and building networks including Town Meeting, selectmen, Public Works, and the Planning Board. Almost every area has concerns about development. Most of the initial proposals we see are too big and out of scale. They require variances and special permits because they don't conform to existing zoning. Nearly every proposal leads to debate and sometimes a long series of meetings." In most cases, he said, there is some kind of resolution.

"We're fortunate that the BNA process has shown how often associations face similar challenges and we learn how to deal with them," he said. Uniting has led to the prompt formation of groups to address these issues. Lynn-Jones said, "Concerns over development have really transcended particular neighborhoods. For example, in the St. Paul area the only way development can take place is through demolition or shoe-horning a new building in."

He speaks about the process that went into modifying plans so St. Paul Crossing would fit as well as it does into the area. I remember those meetings because a group of activists led the process. One of our neighbors is Ponnie Katz. A winner of BNA's neighborhood leadership award, Lynn-Jones tells me that "Ponnie exemplifies neighborhood activist in Brookline. She deserves a story all by herself. She has been one of our most active members since the beginning, maybe even before the beginning."

Ponnie Katz jumped into the Adlai Stevenson campaign in 1952. She's been a Town Meeting member since the fifties although she retired in 2011. She says, "I always was interested in development, zoning and planning issues. They affect the character of how a town looks. I joined Town Meeting because it's the voice of Brookline residents."

Patience, as you might suspect, is a virtue when it comes to some topics. Katz says, "You learn pretty quickly that most of these issues can't be resolved overnight. You're going to have to go to the Planning Board, the Board of Appeals and Town Meeting; all of them deal with development legalities. "These boards determine how a town is going to be developed. Some of their decisions are mandated by regulations and others are more judgmental because the Planning Board votes on them. Being there is one way you can do something to affect the outcome. And you learn to build coalitions across groups in Town Meeting for example, when there's a zoning amendment proposed and you want the vote to go one way or another," she said.

The BNA has clout, Katz says. "It has an important place as a network of information; it gives great support to zoning, planning, and preserving of open space. And the associations are growing more important. They're concerned with balance between commercial and residential growth."

Lynn-Jones says that most associations, especially those near commercial areas, want vibrant restaurants and retail you can walk to. The BNA is considering general zoning developments, the building process and how it can be improved. One spot they're watching is Longwood Medical because hospitals and others are "eyeing the town for expansion." He is referring to land along the Green Line's D branch between Longwood Towers and Brookline Village where several parcels are, as he puts it, "under consideration. There isn't any vacant land on the Boston side and they're building on every square inch. This needs to be addressed now, at least from a budget standpoint, because if land goes to nonprofits it disappears from tax rolls." So far, their purchases have been limited, Lynn-Jones says, "but more buys could change the character of certain neighborhoods."

The BNA's member groups are familiar with zoning. "We have several members on the town's Zoning Bylaw Review Committee which means that our voice is part of the process. This goes for Town Meeting, the Selectmen and the Planning Board as well," he said.

Also under scrutiny is the group of narrow parcels along Route 9 west that back up along the Green Line between the Village and Cypress Street. "White Place, across the tracks, is home to some of the oldest houses in town. Those residents are concerned that growth along Route 9 will include buildings that block their sunlight," he said. The BNA, he points out, "rarely takes a position because our by-laws prohibit taking sides where more than one association is involved. Our most important job is sharing information."

Katz clearly likes the sharing process too. And she is immensely patient with the bureaucracy that goes along with growth and change. She points to the BNA's guest speakers "who provide broader discussion on development and open space." These activists, she notes, are skilled at presenting contrasting points of view.

After I wrote the story, I thought of another question for Ponnie Katz. It's not very original but like Mr. Rogers said: "Won't you be my neighbor?" Lucky for me, she already is.
© Spring 2007 for Our Town Brookline
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