Take My Council, Please: And Without Further Delay…
SPRINGFIELD—With a burst of legislation and a handful of grants, the City Council here closed out the year and, for that matter, itself with the last bit of business before the new year and the new Council is sworn. After some deliberation on a new ordinance and a few other items, the Council also held its informal caucus at which it selects the next Council President and Vice-President.
Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna was absent from Monday’s meeting.
As per usual, the meeting had its share of housekeeping and minutiae. A block of grants which fund youth tobacco prevention efforts, healthcare for the homeless, emergency management, Camp Angelina and the new Mary Troy Park. Mary Troy Park, created in conjunction with the conversion of the Liberty Branch Library to a senior drop-in center, will costs about $580,000 about $400,000 came through the grant. Camp Angelina is a summer camp in Forest Park, the grant for which was for over $1.2 million.
Progress on the street vendors ordinance did not advance after Public Health & Safety Committee Chair and at-large Councilor Tom Ashe said that the council could not act.
Planning and Economic Development released four nominations to the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, which the Council approved unanimously. They were Armando Feliciano (term expires 2018), realtor (and ubiquitous political contributor) Dot Lorite (term expires 2017), William MacGreggor (term expires 2017) and Fiore Grassetti, the organized labor member (term expires 2016).
Special permits for digital billboards along I-91 were withdrawn by the sponsors. The council returned to committee authorization for the School Department to seek a school bus five year contract. Busing is managed by the schools, but must be paid out of the non-school side of the budget. Wherever its funding, the school department needs Council approval for a contract in excess of three years.
The issue had been in committee before as councilors demurred at giving the schools authorization for such a length of time without seeing a contract or having any input. Deputy City Solicitor Kathy Breck told the council, in response to a question from at-large Councilor Tim Rooke, the contract was a bid and not a Request for Proposals and thus not subject to a review committee. Breck added the contract requires the buses be garaged in the Springfield, which could then collect excise tax on the vehicles.
Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, a former school committee member, questioned Breck about the need for putting the buses in Springfield, as it increased the cost of the contract overall. She said the subject of not garaging in Springfield was not part of the discussion. At the suggestion of Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton, the matter returned to committee.
Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen spoke on his measure to authorize a raise for the School Committee. Allen said the measure was originally part of a package that ultimately raised the mayor and Council’s salaries. However, time constraints led the Committee raise to be dropped. Like the mayor and Council, Allen explained, the Committee had not received an increase in over a decade and a half. The salaries relative to the district’s student population and other smaller districts are also quite small.
The Council voted 11-1 for the increase with only at-large Councilor Jimmy Ferrera in dissent. To take effect, the Committee must also grant its approval. It will paid out of the schools’ side of the budget.
A resolve honoring Nelson Mandela passed the Council as well. An order reversing the directions on Stearns Square was defeated after the Police Department reported that it no longer viewed the change as necessary.
Ordinances took up some of the most time of the evening. A ban on certain use of onboard motors passed First Step on a voice vote. The next ordinances were minor tweaks to the Foreclosure ordinances the city enacted two years ago. A change to the as of yet unimplemented Mediation Ordinance was largely ministerial. The change to the foreclosed properties ordinance was aimed at narrowing the ordinance’s focus to exclude properties not intended to be regulated.
Another tweak reduced the fee associated with the ordinance. Assistant City Solicitor Lisa DeSousa explained that as the city began its implementation of the ordinance, the fee revenue appeared set to exceed the program’s costs. In an effort to keep the program revenue neutral, the fee had to be reduced. Both foreclosure changes passed first step on a voice vote.
The more contentious issue of the evening was the demolition-delay ordinance that pitted historic preservationists against developers at a Planning & Economic Development Committee meeting that lasted over an hour. The Monday night hearing was only one of several held on the subject, which had come to fore after Mercy Hospital demolished the Allis Mansion earlier this year.
Such ordinances prohibit demolition of historically significant buildings outside of established historic districts for a period of time to allow for efforts to preserve them. Preservationists meanwhile can use the time to find a use that would preserve the structure.
Historical Commissioners and developers like Colvest’s Frank Colaccino were present as were numerous department heads and preservation advocates. The proposal as originally designed would include a twelve month delay period for 100+ year old buildings, although a developer could appear before the Historical Commission and an earlier permissible demolition if certain circumstances exist.
Developers opposed the ordinance with support from Rooke, who argued at one point that if the city wants to save structures, it should pony up the money to pay for them or at least relieve developers of ascertaining a building’s age by conducting a citywide survey. He urged no further action until a discussion with the mayor about funding a study. Developers said the process, namely coming before the commission, was burdensome and time consuming. They preferred a 30-90 day delay, citing Boston’s 90 day delay window.
Preservationists countered that no development is done overnight and the process of going before the commission could easily be done concurrent with development.
Historical Commission member Ben Murphy said that the cost of a survey citywide, likely in excess of a $1 million dollars is not likely within the city’s budget. Robert McCarroll, the Commission’s member from the Springfield Preservation Trust, noted that the National Historic Register is not helpful. In the first place, the city has not paid to nominate a structure in the city in 30 years. More to the point, inclusion in the register does not prohibit demolition unless federal funds are involved.
Commissioner Thomas Beltan offered perhaps the sharpest critique of developers’ arguments. He observed over his decades-long tenure on the commission, too often historic properties were demolished with the promise of economic development. However, years later the space ends up being a park or vacant lot, sometimes taken off the tax rolls entirely.
Councilor Allen, who had spearheaded the ordinance and gotten First step of the ordinance passed at a previous meeting, suggested modifying the proposal to reduce the window to nine months. He explained both during the committee meeting and again at Council that twelve months was not necessary. He and McCarroll discussed the timeline to erect a historic district, if necessary, to provide stronger protections that could be done in nine months if the end is nigh for a historic structure.
During the Council meeting, Councilors Shea, Melvin Edwards of Ward 3 and E. Henry Twiggs of Ward 4, added words of support. All were prepared to support twelve months, but would balk at anything less than nine months. Allen also noted that a wide variety of timelines existed among communities with demolition delay ordinances. Longmeadow’s rule is for nine months, while Worcester’s is six-nine months (but it also captures structures as few as seventy-five years old).
At-large Councilor Bud Williams, the committee’s chair, supported passage of second step (passed on a voice vote) as well as Allen’s change (the Law Department requested minor changes which preservationists did not oppose). However Williams said the body as a whole, given the complex argument in committee, would need to decide, whether it was prepared for final passage of the ordinance. Ultimately it was, the ordinance passed final step 10-2. Only Rooke and Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion registered opposition.
McCarroll, speaking to WMassP&I after the meeting, said he was “Thrilled to see we are finally here,” with passage of a demolition delay ordinance. Asked how he felt about having nine instead of twelve months he said it was part of the art of compromise. “We can’t be like Congress,” he added. Other supporters had privately grumbled that twelve months seemed possible Monday night.
Allen echoed that sentiment in an interview with WMassP&I on Tuesday, reemphasizing that the twelve month window was simply not necessary. “The facts show that the process can be aptly done,” in nine months he said. Allen agreed with McCarroll’s sentiment saying that the nine months reflected compromise. His own whip count for any ordinance may have only barely reached a majority.
At twelve months, Allen explained, it was possible supporters could lose several votes as developers likely would have stepped up their lobbying efforts. Having passed with 10 votes, losing only a few could put passage in jeopardy very quickly. Instead, he highlighted that Springfield now has joins over 100 communities that have a demolition delay ordinance.
Rooke attempted to table the measure for 30 days pending efforts to get money for a survey, but his motion deadlocked and failed 6-6. The ordinance still needs Mayor Sarno’s signature to become law.
Following the meeting, the Council held its annual informal caucus at which it selects the President and Vice-President. Fenton announced he had the votes, although Williams had said he would challenge him on the floor. That did not happen and Fenton was elected without opposition. At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh was voted Vice-President unanimously. Fenton presented proclamations to Ferrera and Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak, both of whom were not reelected. Ferrera, closing out his second term as president, received a plaque, too. Both also received applause and words of praise from their colleagues.
Twiggs nominated both Fenton and Walsh with a thunderous introduction. Councilors-elect Justin Hurst and Orlando Ramos joined their future colleagues for their first vote. They took the places of the defeated councilors, who had already left the chamber. The work of the 2012-2013 Council was finished.