• By Dustin Luca Staff Writer
  • Mar 14, 2019


SALEM — Five city councilors shot down an overlay zoning ordinance Thursday night, even after being given a way to continue work on the ordinance to address concerns.

With the rejection of the zoning package aimed at reusing school and city buildings for housing, it can’t resurface until at least January of 2020. In the meantime, the future of a construction project in the old senior center building on Broad Street is now in doubt.

The proposal would have created a “Municipal and Religious Reuse Overlay District,” which established rules for developers to work under when developing certain properties in Salem that are owned by the city or religious institutions.

Developers would also have needed to meet certain expectations from the city, including setting aside a percentage of units as affordable.

The idea is to provide a way for vacant properties, like school buildings at St. James Parish on Federal Street and Immaculate Conception on Hawthorne Boulevard, to be converted into housing. Regulations do not allow multifamily housing in those districts now. 

But the zoning package included a number of other buildings around the city, among them historic City Hall and the Fire Department headquarters. City officials, however, have said they have no intention of redeveloping those buildings or some of the others that ended up within the proposed overlay criteria.

After it was vetted during a nearly four-hour council ordinance committee meeting, the zoning package went to a full council vote on Feb. 28. But the plan was narrowly rejected. The council voted 7-4 in support of the overlay, but the package needed eight votes — two-thirds of the council — to pass. Councilors Arthur Sargent, Elaine Milo, Tim Flynn and Steve Dibble voted against the plan. 

The result prompted heated exchanges between councilors on either side after the meeting, as well as a motion to reconsider filed by Ward 6 Councilor Beth Gerard.

Gerard’s motion froze the vote, allowing the zoning package to come back before the council Thursday night for a second chance.

Thursday night, they voted six members supporting to five opposed — the same four opponents as before, with Domingo Dominguez added to the roster.   

The issue was complicated recently by how change would impact Immaculate Conception and St. James Parish. The North Shore Community Development Coalition, a regional developer of affordable housing, has support from the Archdiocese to covert the properties into housing. Further, the coalition has said it would use an alternative route known as a “friendly 40B” to make the projects happen with city support.

At the same time, officials have said the ordinance is necessary to begin the redevelopment of the old senior center on Broad Street. Should that project not go forward, it would mean a $1 million hit to the city’s tax levy when it comes time to pay for the new Community Life Center on Bridge Street — the sale of 5 Broad St. was meant to balance the new center’s debt.

Public comment at the meeting focused mostly on the need to pass the ordinance, while some others said the ordinance needed more work and should go back to committee, giving it another chance at adoption.

Prior to the vote, City Solicitor Beth Rennard explained that councilors still had an avenue to send it to committee — by giving it first passage (all ordinance changes require a second passage to give officials another chance to review it), and then sending it to committee instead of voting on that second passage.

When it came time to vote, however, confusion erupted after Gerard’s motion to reconsider was ruled out of order by Dibble. Instead, an unrecognized vote from Sargent to reconsider that managed to succeed during the last meeting created the avenue for reconsideration and, seconds later, the unsuccessful vote. There was no discussion for reconsideration in the confusion over Gerard’s motion being rejected.

Housing board appointments sparks fighting

Moments later, the meeting twice devolved into personal attacks between members when discussing two appointments to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Board. That was mostly led by Councilor-at-large Tom Furey, who was upset Christine Madore — a city councilor with a planning and affordable housing background — was overlooked when Dibble tapped councilors Sargent and Dominguez for the board.

“I’m very disappointed that your judgment took place, that she wasn’t even elected,” Furey said. “I’m very disappointed in the power play.”

That motion was tabled in a close seven-to-four vote so councilors can privately decide who would work on the board before the next meeting on March 28. That prompted Furey to demand “fairness, transparency and openness,” and not “to go into email situations and a social media process.”

“Some of us did this during the city clerk’s appointment, and I urge you not to deal in emailing each other,” Furey said. “I’m very disappointed in the overall process the City Council president (Dibble) has put us in.”

Furey stormed out while Dibble defended himself, forcing Sargent momentarily to be called upon to lead the meeting while Dibble spoke.

“There is no hidden agenda here at all,” Dibble said, “and I am willing to work with Councilor Madore to make this happen. I don’t know how it got to this point, but I’m willing to work with Councilor Madore.”

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.