SALEM — A fight is brewing over Christmas tree sales on the city’s parking lot at 297 Bridge St.

City councilors on Thursday will take up an order filed by Ward 5 Councilor Josh Turiel to allow Christmas tree sales on part of the Universal Steel lot, next to F.W. Webb from Nov. 23 to Dec. 24. But the Federal Street Neighborhood Association opposes the plan.

Turiel said his proposal was spurred by Ludwig’s Trees, which since 1971 has sold Christmas trees in Salem, usually from a lot on Canal Street. Construction at that site has left Ludwig’s looking for a new location.

“At this point, right now, there’s no real, practical space on Canal Street for them to operate out of,” Turiel said. “Burton (Ludwig III, the current owner) came to me earlier in the year, and we talked about trying to find a space.”

City Mayor Kim Driscoll “recognized how many people in the city really value being able to get their tree from the same people their parents and grandparents got their tree from,” Turiel said. “We kicked around a few ideas for locations, and the one that came up was, ‘we have a city-controlled lot that has a decent amount of traffic going by it.'”

But the Federal Street neighborhood group, which represents homeowners on Federal Street and a couple of side streets overlooking Bridge Street, says the Universal Steel lot isn’t the right place.

“Our thoughts and concerns have absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, but rather have everything to do with the hazardous nature of this site,” said association President Fred Biebesheimer.

For decades, the Universal Steel lot was used as a metal processing site. It was cleaned up years ago by the EPA to the tune of $2.2 million, while another $748,000 was spent to truck out 8,990 tons of contaminated soil. It came under city ownership during that process.

After the remediation, the site was paved over — a temporary solution to create commuter parking while the MBTA built a new garage around the corner. In the time since, F.W. Webb has pushed to expand and along the way buy the site.

But those plans died after a volley of legal appeals from the Federal Street neighborhood opposed to the use, rezoning of the site to a business use, and anything unearthing what remains of the contamination under the parking lot.

The site is zoned for business and is also locked up by an activity-use limitation that prevents any future residential development.

But Biebesheimer argues that the limitation also means people can’t be at the site for an extended amount of time, including for work. The neighborhood association’s opposition, he said, is “in being consistent that this parcel was illegally zoned B-4, and not wanting to encourage or endorse any business use in this location.”

Turiel said he wasn’t surprised at the neighborhood group’s objection.

“You could probably propose that Santa put his workshop on that site, and prove to the world that he is real, and FSNA would oppose it,” he said.

“Sorry Santa,” Turiel said. “It isn’t zoned for you.”

In a response to a notice about the plan, Biebesheimer said the neighborhood group’s leaders have “fond associations with the Ludwig operation.”

“However, as the zoning for the Universal Steel lot is very much at issue in our ongoing appeals (of rezoning associated with the F.W. Webb expansion project), FSNA opposes any non-conforming uses at the Universal Steel lot and supports only the current parking use at that location,” he wrote.

Turiel has asked the council to immediately vote on the proposal. The council could also refer the matter to its administration committee, but that would mean the issue wouldn’t come up again before the full board until mid-December — too late for Christmas tree sales.

Every October, Salem school groups have traditionally set up at the Universal Steel lot and charged for parking on the weekends, a fundraising use that opponents to the F.W. Webb expansion project have vocally defended.

City Council meetings are held in the council’s chambers at City Hall, 93 Washington St., beginning at 7 p.m. Residents looking to speak are encouraged to sign up at the City Clerk’s office on the first floor prior to the meeting.

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.

Justin Whittier’s Response to the article originally posted on the Neighborhood Association Facebook Page 

So, the silly argument over Christmas trees at the Universal Steel parking lot has ended with the vote of the City Council to allow it.
I say silly not because there were not genuine issues involved, but because of the characterizations of our neighborhood with came with it — particularly from Councillor Turiel, who is a reliable font of snark. But there were many other comments on various pages, from “Keep It Klassy Salem,” whose author enjoys the slinging of muck and encourages the same in his/her followers, to “You Know You Are From Salem If,” which has an admixture of thoughtful and thoughtless comments. One example: People in our neighborhood were referred to as “actual human garbage.” Nice, isn’t it?
Now, why?
Well, clearly the SNEWS article ramped up the conflict, or rather CREATED a conflict where none existed. This was likely an editorial decision, as the main malfeasance was in the headline and the lede. There was no “ire,” nor was there any “fight brewing.”
Instead, there was the considered comment of a neighborhood group presently engaged in a lawsuit over the usage of the same lot. This requires caution and consistency, regardless of one’s personal sympathies. (Isn’t it odd that after all the absurd suggestions that our neighborhood wants this parcel as our own “personal parking lot” that no one has suggested many would love their traditional vendor of Xmas trees to be a stone’s throw from their door? No. Instead we’re “NIMBYs” who hate Xmas.)
Now the environmental concern which was raised in FSNA’s response has been the subject of MUCH argument. I have myself been accused of lying and “fear mongering,” etc. People can plow through the paperwork and the technical jargon if so minded, and they can come to conclusions that suit them.
The simple facts are these:
–The lot is a capped contaminated waste site.
–In spite of the cap, one is STILL exposed to contaminants, PCBs in particular.
–There are rules put in place and legal restrictions meant to limit exposure.
–While these limits come to 16.8 hours per week, that by no means says that you can be under that limit and enjoy no risk.
–Risk is hazy; it must be ball-parked. Everyone’s biology is slightly different. People have varying degrees of PAST exposure from here or elsewhere. PCBs are particularly pernicious because they get in and stay.
–The risk is best analogized, I think, to going out in the sun: some people burn more easily and quickly, and each minute adds to sun-related risks. It is NOT best seen as a parking ticket, where so long as you stay just under the limit, you’re fine.
–Will the Ludwig family experience any bad effects? Who knows! But they will have increased their risk.
So, given all this — even supposing a minimal risk — does this strike anyone as the BEST spot for their operation? It doesn’t strike me that way. I wouldn’t work there.