• By Dustin Luca Staff Writer
  • Aug 1, 2019

     

SALEM — A special permit aimed at redeveloping vacant church and city property managed to get first passage from the City Council Thursday night after months of debate and delays.

The City Council voted nine members to one to give the first of two necessary passages to a “Municipal and Religious Reuse” ordinance. The motion also sent the issue to the City Council’s ordinance committee for further review before coming back to the City Council at its first meeting in September.

The reuse ordinance was created after the failure of a similarly designed overlay district before City Council earlier this year. The special permit, while not acting as an overlay district, would allow the redevelopment of vacant church and city buildings that don’t conform to their underlying zoning districts, including the St. James Parish at 150 Federal St. and Immaculate Conception at 17 Hawthorne Blvd. The old senior center at 5 Broad St. is also eligible for the program if it clears the City Council in September.

If the ordinance isn’t able to pass at that meeting, it will trigger an expiration clause for ordinances with public hearings. The meeting saw public comments from more than a dozen residents who were mostly in favor of the ordinance, a majority of which also pressed for immediate passage given the timeline issue.

“I think that, as everyone has said in the three before me, the stock of housing is really short,” said Rosa Ordaz, a Forest Avenue resident. “And as constituents that have elected you will say, we need more housing.”

“Today is August 1, and I can’t believe I’m still here tonight talking about zoning,” said Lori Stewart, a Barnes Road resident. “We’ve gotten to a point where a majority of the city is together on this ordinance and has been publicly testifying to that fact. The thing that’s happening, though, is it’s getting caught up with people and personalities on the City Council.”

Stewart further said that, while she knocks on doors for candidates in the city’s election season, she hears from voters who “are angry about how long this has been going on.”

“You’re dragging the entire city along with you,” Stewart said, “and I think it’s going to be a very big election issue.”

Fawaz “Fuzzy” Abusharkh, a Harrison Road resident, cautioned the councilors against acting too quickly on the ordinance and lobbied for more time to work on issues.

“You don’t eat the poison and then, if you get sick, go to the hospital,” Abusharkh said. “You try to avoid the poison.” 

When it came time for councilors to speak, most pressed for immediate action on the issue given an upcoming deadline. Several city councilors echoed that call.

“Many (residents) have three to four credit cards and college debts. Most are living week to week. Many are working two to three jobs,” Furey said. “Housing has a human face — a chair is not a chair without someone sitting in it. Tonight, we can’t delay any longer.”

Council President Steve Dibble, speaking as a councilor to Ward 7, lobbied for the ordinance to go to committee first to correct final issues. He included a suggestion to change the ordinance’s affordability level from having affordable units reserved for households under 80 percent of the area median income — the norm, generally — to 60 percent. That would ensure the units go to families with greater financial need.

Ultimately, a vote was taken to add affordability specifically for 10 percent of units at 80 percent area median income, which passed unanimously. The ordinance was then given first passage and sent to the ordinance committee on a nine to one vote, with at-large Councilor Arthur Sargent voting against the proposal and Ward 4 City Councilor Tim Flynn absent.

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.