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John "Jack" Kelly Eying Return to Planning Board

Burlington Patch sat down with Planning Board Candidate John Kelly to discuss his campaign and why he is running for the board.

Editor's note: The following is an interview with Planning Board Candidate John "Jack" Kelly. Burlington Patch will feature articles on all of the candidates in the contested Board of Selectmen and Planning Board races.

John Kelly, known to all as Jack, is looking for to fill one of the two vacant spots on the Burlington Planning Board in this April's town election.

Kelly was a member of the Planning Board from 1984 to 1994 and has spent many years serving as a Town Committee member. He was first elected to Town Meeting in 1972 and served until 1979. He was re-elected as a Town Meeting member in 1996 and is has served until the present, and is still on the ballot for Precinct 3 though his hope is to make the leap from Town Meeting to Planning Board after April 14. From 1996 to 2001 Kelly was Burlington’s appointed representative to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency covering 101 cities and towns in the Greater Boston area. He has also volunteered to the Ways and Means Committee for 10 of the past 16 years.

Kelly and his wife Mimi have lived in Burlington for 43 years. Their three children, Robin, Lori and David attended and graduated from the Burlington Public Schools. Professionally Kelly is a self-employed attorney.

Kelly said he had mixed emotions about leaving Town Meeting, but said he believes his knowledge and experience would be an asset to the Planning Board at this time as the town faces, in his words, a new era of "redevelopment."

"I have great misgivings about leaving Town Meeting, it is the executive body in town, but I want to be sure that what Town Meeting has adopted is enforced on the Planning Board level," he said. "A badly proposed and built development, once its done, is something we're stuck with it for a long time. You only have to screw up once so we have to defend against bad projects continuously."

Kelly said that being vigilant against unintended consequences of development projects is an important part of being a Planning Board member and said he believes his training in law would help in that regard.

"One of my skills, I think, is that I listen extremely carefully to the words the presenters don't say," he said. "Being an attorney my ear is trained to what words they avoid saying when they are arguing for their particular proposal. It's too easy for people to listen to a carefully but vaguely worded justification and hear what they want to hear. I think I'm good at hearing what they don't say and doing the follow-up."

Kelly said he was inspired to run for the Planning Board the first time because of issues in his neighborhood and this time around is more interested in the town as a whole. 

"Why did I get back into it?," he asked. "I thought I could offer something, I have a different set of skills now that I didn't have in 1984."

Kelly said that his experience and training give him the necessary background to tackle the complicated issues facing the town.

"Those in the Planning Board have to pay attention to detail because even a small application can have impact, not just the big ones," he said. "You have to pay attention to everything and take the time to get it right. I see us entering into a major redevelopment phase and I think we have to guard against unattended consequences. We have to look long range. if we're not careful we'll become some type of a hodgepodge, an over-commercialized and industrialized town, and I want to guard against that."

As an example of a recent proposed project that could have unintended consequences, Kelly pointed to the proposed re-zoning of the Canyon Site by the Gutierrez Company for a possible Target location. The developer has put forward a traffic mitigation proposal to alleviate congestion, but Kelly argued that a close look at the details undermines the claims.

"[Gutierrez] is saying that they used a traffic study that reflected the worse-case scenario, but they used September traffic numbers rather than December numbers," he explained. "Is the worst-case scenario in that area September and not the Christmas shopping season? I don't think that is a fair traffic analysis to use, and that's what I'm talking about, things like that, we need to check further into the claims."

Kelly further argued that though the Canyon Property arguments includes increased taxes to the town, the extra revenue would mean the town receives less state aid and he isn't convinced that is a worthwhile trade.

"This hurts us with the state cherry sheet," he said. "The proposed Target will increase the tax base but will cut down what we get from the state. Is the extra traffic worth the aggregation? I think we've probably reached the point of diminishing returns."

Kelly added that taking into consideration aspects of a proposal like the traffic impact is important, not only for the benefit of residents, but for the business community as a whole.

"I know some people will go shopping in another town rather than coming into our business area because of traffic because they don't want that hassle," he said. "I definitely don't want to do anything that will cause more people to go to neighboring towns rather than shopping in Burlington."

Kelly acknowledged that in many projects, the Planning Board is restrained in its powers by the limits set in the bylaws by Town Meeting. However, he argued, the town needs people who are diligent and who pay attention to details as they review site plans, attributes he said are part of his character.

"As for site planning and permits, if they meet the criteria you can't tell them 'no'," he said. "You follow the criteria in the bylaw and ensure they meet it. What you can do is scrutinize the application so you are not letting them evade the requirements and bylaws approved by Town Meeting."

Though he speaks about being tough and thorough when considering proposed development plans, Kelly said he is not anti-development or anti-business, but his priority is with the residents rather than the businesses.

"My philosophy, my preference, for the residential neighborhoods is long established," he said. "That doesn't mean I'm anti business, but it means neighbors come first. Part of what neighbors want is lower taxes, so we need to make that balance, but that balance should not include things that harm the neighborhood."

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