Low Street vote moved to special meeting Thursday

Heather Alterisio, The Daily News of Newburyport, Mass.
·4 min read

Feb. 24—NEWBURYPORT — The City Council resumes discussion Thursday night on whether to buy surplus state property at 57 Low St. after councilors Monday voted to delay the decision because an amendment to add a conservation restriction came up in the final hour of the scheduled decision.

Councilors have spent roughly five months deliberating whether to purchase the surplus National Guard building and property on Low Street for general municipal purposes using $220,000 from the city's free cash account. The late amendment Monday, sponsored by Councilor at large Charles Tontar, prompted the council to vote 8-3 to move the decision to Thursday night.

The property was first sought by Mayor Donna Holaday about three years ago with hope of establishing a permanent home there for Newburyport Youth Services, which is at the former Brown School. Over the past few months, the Parks and School departments have been floated as possible city services that could benefit from buying 57 Low St.

At the meeting Monday, Tontar asked to move the Low Street vote to its own special meeting Thursday because of the late amendment. He wanted the public and fellow councilors to have more time to review the proposal.

The amendment was recommended by Holaday as a compromise with council President Jared Eigerman. It was emailed to councilors about an hour and a half prior to the meeting, which meant it was not readily available to the public or press.

Since fall, Eigerman has repeatedly said he would not support the purchase of 57 Low St. unless there was a conservation restriction to protect wetlands. He stands by that position.

Holaday offered a compromise, saying the administration would be open to an Article 97 conservation restriction on the wetlands, but not on the 25-foot buffer zone. Instead, there could be a two-thirds supermajority order by the council to make sure that no building take place within that 25-foot buffer zone.

The 25-foot buffer zone would then be protected by the council and deed, but not by the state constitution, Eigerman explained.

Councilor at large Joseph Devlin, Ward 1 Councilor Sharif Zeid and Ward 6 Councilor Byron Lane voted against moving the vote to Thursday.

A special meeting will begin remotely at 7:30 p.m. More details on the amendment will be available at www.cityofnewburyport.com.

Also during the meeting, the council voted 6-5 to move Ordinance 69, which seeks to amend language in Section 6.5 of the municipal code relating to barrier beach redevelopment, to the Committee on Planning & Development.

This order was sponsored by Councilor at large Afroz Khan and Ward 3 Councilor Heather Shand, who chair the Ordinance Review Committee and the Committee on Planning & Development, respectfully.

Ordinance 71, which sought to amend details regarding the Plum Island Overlay District in the city zoning ordinance, was withdrawn by its sponsor, Councilor at large Barry Connell, at the start of the meeting.

During the meeting's public comment portion, more than 40 Plum Island residents demanded that the two ordinances be taken off the table.

They said the ordinances are a violation of their rights as property owners and condemned the timing of them, especially with the flooding and property damage that many of them are already dealing with as a result of recent storms and erosion related to the jetties.

Zeid spoke in support of these residents and detailed some of the many frustrations he has witnessed in his five years representing Ward 1, which includes the island.

"There is a longstanding feeling on Plum Island that they are treated as second-class residents and that they don't get the same respect as residents on the mainland," he said, explaining how residents feel they have to beg for assistance when they need it and ultimately end up paying for things on their own.

The Ward 1 councilor strongly opposed sending Ordinance 69 to committee since the ordinance would not allow for any property footprint expansion, including the addition of decks.

"Why would you make it harder for people to raise their homes?" he said. "Raising a home, almost certainly, in most cases, will require changes to the footprint to accommodate other things like stairs, decks or landings to access the first floor and ironically, the V and AO FEMA zones, which this would impact most, are the ones where you would like to see homes raised more than any."

Along with Zeid, Ward 4 Councilor Christine Wallace, Ward 5 Councilor James McCauley, Devlin and Lane also voted against sending this ordinance to committee.