, Newburyport, MA

December 23, 2013

Puzzled by council's fast action on hotel zoning

Newburyport Daily News

---- — To the editor:

I have been reflecting on this paper’s description of the last City Council meeting of 2013. I am particularly puzzled by the account of the council’s decision to forgo normal procedural requirements that issues have two readings. They did this in order to facilitate a speedy allowance of more flexible setback requirements to Mr. Karp’s prospective hotel/parking development.

Several aspects of this decision are especially troubling, but first I must state that I like the plan for this hotel. I do wonder about the details of public/private funding of the parking plan. We have so much bonded indebtedness as it is. The hotel itself would need more than 86 places, and quasi-public would mean more than 200, but perhaps that is what is envisioned.

According to the article, the council took the action so quickly because the mayor wanted it done before the end of the year. I had always believed that the separation of powers enshrined in our Constitution was a good thing. Cooperation is fine, but legislative bodies have their own unique directives. The two-reading requirement gives them time to think about the implications of decisions and gives citizens a chance to comment. Most do not attend small committee hearings.

I also worry that a most favored developer status given to one developer does not embody equality of opportunity to all. If readings are waived for Mr. Karp, why not for Joseph Leone, Mark de Piero … ? If I were one of these others, I think I would be inclined to seek such equality vigorously.

Because many older buildings in the city have minimal setbacks, the present requirements have generally been flexibly applied. But these venerable structures are smaller in mass and scale. We instinctively are overwhelmed when a large mass is right beside a walkway. If anyone walks by the Heritage Landing development, one can see what I mean. It is the same feeling where the Rowe’s Wharf Marriott adjoins Atlantic Avenue in Boston.

The City Council plans to review all zoning in 2014. This work offers an opportunity to include concepts like mass and scale in setback requirements. This would be more logical and equitable than piecemeal allowances to individual developers.

It particularly puzzles me that councilors who have advocated for regulations for private residences — what kinds of additions they can put on their homes for their growing families, what kind of windows they can put in — are throwing all caution to the wind in favor of one commercial developer.

Many are extremely worried about the influence of wealth in national politics. But, of course, all politics is local. The three councilors who objected to a hasty procedure to grant special privilege, who advocated deliberation and care, will no longer be in the council in January. I worry about the next two years.

Susan Hern