Newburyport councilors find consensus ahead of 57 Low St. vote

·5 min read

Jan. 14—NEWBURYPORT — The City Council appeared to reach a consensus among 10 of its 11 members Thursday, indicating a likely vote in favor of purchasing the property at 57 Low St. later this month.

During a Committee on Budget & Finance and Committee of the Whole meeting, Ward 1 Councilor Sharif Zeid and Councilor at large Bruce Vogel introduced an amended version of Order 300, which would authorize the purchase of the 2.7-acre portion of 57 Low St. and assign temporary use.

The amended version removes conditions such as a conservation restriction and replaces most of the language of the original order, which was introduced by co-sponsors Zeid and former council President Jared Eigerman in November.

The newly amended order would authorize the purchase of the land and assign temporary use to the Department of Public Services and the Parks Department until a permanent or other use is decided by the council.

It would also appropriate $25,000 from free cash to address mold, PCB-containing materials and lead paint in the Low Street building, as identified by Credere Associates LLC, and give the city engineer a March 31 deadline to create a site plan to see what future uses could even be possible.

The amended order initiates efforts to create a plan for the former Brown School on Milk Street, which Newburyport Youth Services vacated in October after an inspection determined the heating system could no longer be used.

It establishes an agreement between the mayor and council to seek a plan for the building, discuss the possibility of restoring the gym, and address the immediate need to protect the Brown School building from weather and further deterioration.

The property at 57 Low St. was long sought by former Mayor Donna Holaday, who spent years working with the National Guard to declare its maintenance building on the property as surplus to sell it so that it could be a future home for Newburyport Youth Services.

The former council voted 6-5 against purchasing the property in February, but was given one more chance to consider the property after soil borings and air quality tests were conducted in late summer.

Last month, the council voted 6-5 to push the discussion over to the next term when four new councilors and Mayor Sean Reardon would be sworn in.

The state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which represents the National Guard in this sale, has given the city until Jan. 31 to close on the property.

On Thursday, councilors sought to find common ground, recognizing that eight votes — or two-thirds of the council — was needed to authorize the property's acquisition.

Zeid, who voted against the Low Street purchase last year, and Vogel, who voted for it with the hope of giving Youth Services a home, explained how they worked out a compromise with this amended version of Order 300.

Councilor at large Afroz Khan expressed concern about the conditions in the order and initiated a discussion about why Youth Services was not included as a potential use in the order.

During the meeting's public comment portion, four members of the NYS Youth Council shared how Youth Services has benefited them and what it would mean to find a home for the city department.

Four other residents also expressed support for finding a home for Youth Services, some of whom noted the need to restore the gym at the Brown School for use by youths and leagues.

Other councilors shared Khan's concern about Youth Services not being included in this order, which raised questions about zoning.

Council President Heather Shand noted that zoning would need to be changed to allow Youth Services to use the property.

After some debate, councilors agreed to add language that would suggest Youth Services could be included as a potential future use for the property.

Planning Director Andy Port believed that this would not be a legal issue, but noted that Youth Services would not be able to get a building permit or do anything to move forward with other plans until the zoning was changed.

Ward 5 Councilor Jim McCauley was opposed, saying it was "disingenuous" to include the detail if zoning does not allow Youth Services to use the property.

As he has previously advocated, McCauley said the Parks Department, which also needs a home, should stay at the property and consolidate some of its equipment with the Department of Public Services.

McCauley added that the city recently spent months trying to find a space for the Parks Department and the former council had to reject the best possible option because it was too expensive.

After just over an hour of discussion Thursday, the council took a straw vote on the new version of Order 300 and received approval from the other 10 councilors.

The Committee on Budget & Finance voted 3-0 to wave council Rule 7i, which requires an appraisal of the property at least seven days before a council vote. The committee also voted 3-0 to recommend that the council approve Order 300 as amended.

The council's next regular meeting is Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m., at which a vote is expected to take place.

Staff reporter Heather Alterisio can be reached via email at halterisio@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3149. Follow her on Twitter @HeathAlt.

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