City Council Notes–10 October

Good morning Salem! I’m going to do it a little differently today, because I attended the Ordinances, Licenses, and Legal Affairs (OLLA) committee meeting ahead of the city council meeting. I will report out on both, but I confess that I did leave Chambers “early,” for my own mental sanity, so I will have to follow-up on some of the more mundane issues. The hot topic last night was accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which some may know as “granny flats” or “in-law suites.”

Some background: The city does have an accessory dwelling ordinance, but since it was implemented, only ten people have applied for the special permit. The ordinance before the council last night was intended to expand the ADU ordinance so that homeowners could let the space to anyone; it would not be restricted to family members (as it is now). A small reminder about how zoning ordinances work: in order for a zoning ordinance to pass, the vote must be 2/3 in favor. It must go through two passages. The language of the ordinance CAN be modified in-between the first and second passage. Once a zoning matter is introduced via a joint public hearing (which was in June for this matter), a clock starts ticking. The matter has 90 days to move, or it dies. It’s like the shark of ordinances. The ADU ordinance must be finalized by 13 November. There is another OLLA meeting on the 23 of October, and there is a city council meeting on 24 October.

There were a couple of issues about the ordinance raised during the public meetings. The first was the time-frame for ownership. The original ordinance had a 2-year owner occupancy clause. In OLLA, Councilor Dominguez asked if that could be extended to 5-years. Other councilors felt that there shouldn’t be an option where the homeowner was not an occupant. The ordinance was amended so that ADUs are only permissible in owner-occupied homes. The other odd language glitch, and one that is being investigated by the city solicitor, is the definition of “owner.” The current language notes that it is where a person receives notices from the IRS and is registered to vote. There are likely homeowners who are ineligible to vote, and they should not be prohibited from developing ADUs on their property. This will be sorted out in the next OLLA meeting.

Mayor Driscoll laid out some of the incentives that are being investigated, including low-interest loans or property tax exemptions for homeowners who develop ADUs and agree to rent them at “affordable rates.” She is also working to develop a compendium of resources for homeowners interested in exploring what they can do with their homes.

The planning board sent their recommendations on 5 September and reviewed them again last night. They clarified entry locations (rear or side), tightened the application language, and added language to better illustrate the diversity of houses eligible.

The half-hour meeting ran long, as the councilors went around the table with the same points that we have heard at every meeting about zoning changes and affordable housing. The OLLA meeting will be available on SATV, so I won’t recap it all here. They did ultimately vote it out of committee, but with NO recommendation. Madore had asked for it to be voted out with a favorable recommendation, but Councilors Dominguez, Milo, and Sargent opposed. Only Dominguez flipped to vote it out with no recommendation. Milo and Sargent did not want the council to vote on the matter last night, which would have effectively killed it.

The city council meeting did not start immediately, rather there was a lot of flitting around, and the pomp was still required despite the late hour start. I will again urge the council to respect the time of their constituents by running effective meetings. During a slightly bumpy public testimony, every person who spoke on the topic of ADUs spoke in favor of the ordinance (there were 13). Only one citizen was a bit ambivalent about the process and the specific matter on the table. Once again, the council went around the table and rehashed the viewpoints that they have espoused time and again, which was not necessarily specific to the ordinance at hand. Councilor Madore did bring some data to the table, which was interesting. The Greater Boston Housing Report Card ranks cities against their housing targets to see where they are with regards to fulfilling their goals. The majority of our neighboring cities are in the double-digit percentages, but Salem is at a woeful 3%. She made mention of this to illustrate that we can do better, and to implore the council to move the matter forward. Sargent spoke shortly after to say that he felt the report cited by Madore was wrong because there was a lot of development going on in Salem. This is not a good way to base decisions. If you feel something is in error, by all means, please check the facts and the source, find more information that may (or may not) counter the presented materials. The LWV-Salem operates under the driving principles of critical thinking and data-driven decision-making, but that was not on display last night.

Roll-call vote for first passage: The matter carried
In favor: Peterson, Dominguez, Turiel, McCarthy, Madore, Gerard, Furey, Dibble
Opposed: Flynn, Milo, Sargent

Respectfully submitted, Jen Lynch