Take My Council, Please: Supersize That Permit Review!…
SPRINGFIELD—This week the City Council revisited a troubled revision to a drive-through special permit that had hit the skids earlier this year amid an abutter’s complaints. The item has still not achieved passage amid a sluggish review. Frustratingly, the once-complaining neighbor has been MIA, leaving councilors to straighten things out alone with the applicant.
The busy agenda cruised along quickly otherwise. A bevy of financial orders passed the Council as did a few new labor contracts. Councilors acted on two zone changes and utility requests to open streets. The body also lent its voice to state legislation that would protect renters as a wave of evictions looms.
Ward 5 Councilor and Council President Marcus Williams was absent from the meeting. At-large councilor Tracye Whitfield, the body’s vice-president, presided.
The return of the McDonald’s permit at 809 Boston Road was a late addition, pinned to the bottom of Council’s to-do list. Approval went off the rails earlier this year when a neighbor, Erica Headley, joined the meeting and released a laundry list of complaints about the maintenance and noise emanating from this particular pair of golden arches.
As the petitioners explained Monday, they were unsuccessful at reaching Headley later. She was not present on the Zoom call either. Councilors then trudged through the permit and their recollections of the earlier complaints. The store is a franchise and not a property of the McDonald’s mothership.
Councilors debating, lighting, fencing and noise from the drive-through. The item itself changes the property’s site plans. Because its drive-through requires a special permit, the Council effectively has oversight of the entire plan. Deputy Director of Planning Phil Dromey told councilors there were usually conditions to keep noise from being audible to adjacent property. This permit did not appear to have those when the city originally issued it.
The body inched toward adding new condition requiring new fencing and an environmental study for light and noise pollution. With the clock ticking toward 10, councilors opted to continue the item rather than finish it.
At the top of the meeting, Ward 8 Councilor and Public Safety Chair Orlando Ramos offered a report to the Council. He said the Police Department had begun briefing him on changes it was making. He also described a meeting with gas station owners—really only Robert Bolduc of Pride—that suggested more review was ahead. Bolduc has reportedly claimed the ban on gas sales to dirt bike riders would endanger station attendants.
The Council approved utility reports for Eversource and Comcast including aboveground gas cabinets. Councilors had delayed the item pending review of the safety of these natural gas meters.
A new historical district passed first step. The old Elias Brookings School is being redeveloped into affordable apartments. The historic designation will let the owners access historic tax credits and community preservation funds to help finance the project.
By far, the largest section of the agenda was financial. Among the funds the Council approved were: $1 million state grant for dispatching; $821,000 from the Gaming Commission to fund the police unit around the casino; a $662,000 increase to the Safe & Successful Youth Initiative city police run; a $230,000 for the city’s tree-planting program; a $214,000 training grant for 911; two grants to Public Works for $192,000 and $167,000; two Library Department grants for $180,000 and $145,000; a $156,000 grant for early childhood services; a $140,000 grant for tobacco control; and $112,000 for the mayor’s Office of Consumer Affairs.
The Gaming Commission funds cover patrols outside the casino. State police patrol the inside of MGM. Jean Canosa Albano, an assistant library director, said the funds her department received came from outside entities set up to support library functions.
The Council also greenlit nearly a dozen smaller grants for the Animal Control, Elder Affairs, Library and Police departments.
Human Resources/Labor Relations Director Bill Mahoney presented the Council with two labor contracts. The pacts with locals 1596A and 3065 of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees—who represent library supervisors and public works foremen respectively—take effect from July 1, 2021 and run through June 30, 2024.
Mahoney said the pacts harmonize the contracts with recent Supreme Court jurisprudence and include 2% annual raises. Technically, there is a separate pact within the contracts that runs back to July 1, 2020. In prior meetings, Mahoney has explained the pandemic scrambled labor negotiations that would have otherwise concluded before the contracts lapsed last year. That single year from 2020 to 2021 also include a 2% raise.
Ward 4 Councilor Malo Brown was absent for the Local 3065 vote.
Another pandemic-impact was on the city’s Community Preservation Council budget. The CPC’s chair, Bob McCarroll explained that the Council needed to increase the Committee’s three designated funds. Under the Community Preservation Act, the city must dedicate at least 10% of its revenue to housing, historic preservation and parks/recreation each.
Last year, the commonwealth advised community preservation committees statewide there may be no state share as revenues plummeted. The pandemic ultimately did not nuke state finances and committees statewide received their full amount. In Springfield, that amounted to an extra $460,000. The Council voted to appropriate an additional $46,000 into each of the designated CPC accounts.
The Council voted to grant NSTAR an easement for a new utility box on Main Street. It will automate switches that serve large customers on State Street like the federal courthouse, Classical Condominiums, Commerce High School and Verizon. As with other votes, unless specified otherwise, this was unanimous. However, Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton was absent.
Comptroller Patrick Burns released the May revenue & expenditure report. He noted that the school transportation fund was headed toward a $15 million surplus. The city did not pay on its busing contract during the pandemic when students were not in school.
The Council also granted the School Department authorization to seek bids for copiers for three years and nine months. Official said the odd months-long extension was a way to sync this contract with others. City procurement contracts longer than three years require Council authorization. Historically, councilors have complained that seeking authorization before bidding—rather than presenting the Council with the contract—violates the spirit of the law. At-large Councilor Jesse Lederman articulated these frustrations Monday, emphasizing he otherwise had no objection to a longer copier contract.
Councilor Fenton, who has also decried cart-before-the-horse authorizations, joined Lederman in approving the School Department’s request. The authorization passed 10-2.
The Council’s final regular item was a resolution backing an Act to Prevent COVID-19 Evictions and Foreclosures and Promote Equitable Housing Recovery. The bill, currently before the legislature, would reinstate a pause on eviction and foreclosure proceedings.
While the state moratorium has lapsed, many renters and homeowners enjoyed protection from a federal pause. That will end on July 31 after a majority on the Supreme Court warned the Biden administration any further extension was unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny.
Councilor Lederman, the lead sponsor on the resolution, noted that 1100 eviction proceedings had been filed in Springfield. He noted that the state has millions at its disposal to help clear rental debt, rather than allow the foreclosures to move forward. Springfield State Senator Adam Gomez is a lead sponsor of the legislation in the upper house on Beacon Hill. Several area reps are cosponsors in the House.
The resolution passed unanimously, though Councilor Ramos, who is also a state rep, abstained. Under state ethics laws, he cannot vote on an issue both at the Council and the legislature. Similar rules apply to legislative employees who serve on municipal legislatures.
Not content to let McDonald’s steal the fast food show Monday night, developer Frank Colaccino appeared before the Council to request a downtown zone change. Specifically, Colaccino sought to rezone an outparcel building at his Columbus Avenue and Union Street development—formerly the site of St. Joseph Church. A Burger King will go into the structure which has been largely vacant since Colaccino’s company, Colvest, built it.
The change passed unanimously as did another change on Boston Road. That rezoning will allow construction of a self-storage facility. Fenton noted that there was a paper street, that is a right-of-way the city never built out, on the premises. He advised Public Works to investigate this and determine whether a discontinuance of that part of Wollaston Street should occur. Currently, the street has a dead-end about half a block south of Boston Road.
The Council has no regular meetings until September, aside from permit hearings. The mountain of finance items will grow again, however this Monday featured relatively little legislation. That will change in September as councilors seek reelection. Several members have big ideas they hope to bring to a vote, preferably before the election. Plus, they will be watching where American Rescue Plan funds ultimately end up.