Municipal and religious overlay district sparks contentious debate

By Dustin L uca Staff Writer

SALEM — A hot-button meeting to discuss rezoning of religious and city-owned buildings derailed Tuesday night in a charged debate over affordable housing, providing a well-timed tease for an affordable housing forum to be held next week.

The contentious “municipal and religious overlay district” zoning package was before the City Council’s ordinance committee Tuesday night. After two nights of public hearings and nearly two hours of debate on Feb. 14, councilors stripped a long list of Planning Board changes from the package and spent Tuesday night going over each item. The meeting ran for several hours.

Ultimately, the most contentious items of the meeting were cut off the package, which focused heavily on height and size requirements for “new construction” or expansion work. After nearly four hours of debate, the five-member committee sent the entire package to the full City Council’s meeting Thursday night with a positive recommendation, on a narrow threeto- two vote.

But after an hour and a half, the meeting was filled with a debate on how much affordable housing should be packed into properties affected by the overlay. That includes a couple currently vacant buildings and several that could benefit from protection years or decades from now if they become vacant.

As written, the overlay was set to require developers to tag 10 percent of their units as affordable, which was quickly tweaked to say “at least 10 percent” amid outcry from residents to make the percentage higher. Traditionally, those units would be available only to households making 80 percent of the area median income or lower.

City Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent sparked the debate by moving to have the 10-percent-ofunits requirement doubled to 20 percent.

“Our responsibility has to be to our people first, the people who live here and what they need,” Sargent said. “The people who are asking for housing aren’t asking for market- rate housing.”

The effort, which ultimately failed in a narrow two-to-three vote, sparked strong words from city Mayor Kim Driscoll.

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„ „ Continued from Page 1 “The goal in these properties is to get them preserved, to get as much affordable housing as we can,” Driscoll said, “but not set the affordability so high that that doesn’t happen.”

Driscoll, and city planning director Tom Daniel, argued that driving up the number of required units can make projects difficult to financially even out — meaning nobody would develop the properties, they argued.

“The cost of renovating these older historic buildings, particularly those that were vacant for long periods of time, far exceed the return of investment,” Driscoll said.

Through the debate, a voice for affordable housing announced his organization had plans to pitch developments in the two alreadymentioned church properties that would be 100 percent affordable, perhaps making the debate moot.

“We’re looking at the Immaculate Conception site and St. James site, and we’re not planning to do new construction on either. Our plan is to renovate the schools as they are,” said Mickey Northcutt, executive director of the North Shore Community Development Coalition. “Everything we’ve built so far has been 100-percent affordable, with a mix of units at 30, 50 and 60 (percent area median income).”

The entire discussion played out ahead of a highprofile public forum, set for next Tuesday, March 5. The event will be held at the Community Life Center, 401 Bridge St., from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Still, three hours passed before the councilors drew close to the most contentious changes that were at one point on the table. They were based maximum lot coverage by buildings and maximum height of new buildings in feet and stories to “the underlying zoning,” basically meaning “keep it as it is already.” The Planning Board, however, set the lot coverage standard for new construction at 50 percent and the max height at 55 feet and five stories. The changes effectively undid tweaks made to appease residents who previously spoke against the zoning.

It took three hours for the councilors to get to those topics, and after some brief deliberation, the committee cut all support for new construction off the overlay’s “dimensional requirements” table. With that, additions and new construction would require variances from the city’s Zoning Board.

The full package will now go to the City Council’s regular meeting Thursday night, which will begin at 7 p.m. Eight of 11 councilors will be needed for it to pass.