BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — Now that Saturday’s special election on the Brimbal Avenue rezoning question has been decided, the next question to answer is whether the outcome even matters.
By a vote of 3,978 to 3,743, voters upheld the City Council’s decision to rezone a 3.6-acre parcel of land between Brimbal Avenue and Route 128, opening the door to a redesigned interchange and a new shopping plaza.
The plan calls for the state and private developer CEA Group to swap adjacent parcels of land, with the city building a new connector road on the CEA land and CEA building a $20 million plaza on the state land.
But that option might not even be viable due to concerns over building the road on the CEA land, an old city landfill.
Mayor Mike Cahill said yesterday that the next step is for state transportation officials and CEA Group to reach a deal for CEA to pay the costs of ensuring that the land is structurally sound enough to support a road.
If the two sides can’t agree on that cost — estimates have ranged from $500,000 to $5 million — the rezoning won’t be needed, the land swap is off the table, and Saturday’s election is essentially moot.
If that happens, the city would pursue the possibility of building a new connector road on its current footprint, and CEA Group would build a smaller plaza on its current land.
Cahill said he was pleased with the outcome of the election because it preserves both choices for the city.
“I’m appreciative that we’ll continue to have more than one option on the table,” he said. “It’s not clear yet whether either or both of those designs will be buildable, so to continue to look at both of them is a good thing.”
Cahill said the city’s engineering firm, Jacobs Engineering, has said a connector road would work at either location, but moving it 400 feet farther from Route 128 would allow the road to function at a higher level.
Cahill said there could be another advantage to moving the connector road. The road could continue straight across Brimbal Avenue to connect with a bridge over Route 128 that is planned for the second phase of the project. Cahill said that design would limit to one the number of intersections on that section of Brimbal Avenue.
The design was struck down in the past by environmental concerns, but Cahill said the city and state will revisit those issues to see if they can be resolved.
“If we can make it work, I just believe it’s a better outcome for the city for the next 100 years to have one intersection along that stretch of road instead of two,” he said.
Cahill said he hopes that the city will know in two or three months whether it can build the connector road on CEA Group’s land. The city would use a $5 million state grant to hire a contractor to build the road, but the road would be owned and maintained by the state. Construction might not begin until next year, he said.
Aside from traffic concerns and road designs, Cahill said many voters on Saturday were also making a statement that they want to be more included in the planning process for projects.
“I think that’s an important message, and it’s a message that I have believed, as well,” he said. “I’ve been trying to stay engaged with residents so that their ideas and concerns and hopes can all be part of the conversation.”
Although the “yes” vote won by only 235 votes and 3 percentage points (51.5 to 48.5), a simple majority would not have been enough for the “no” vote to win.
A provision in the city charter requires 20 percent of registered voters to overturn a decision by the City Council, meaning the “no” side needed 5,121 votes to prevail.
The “yes” vote carried four of the city’s six wards. The “no” vote won by a 2-to-1 margin in Ward 5, which encompasses Brimbal Avenue, and by six votes in Ward 3.
The special election, held at a single polling place at the high school, drew 7,721 voters, 30 percent of the electorate.
Ward 5 City Councilor Don Martin, who held a “Vote No” sign for hours outside the high school on Saturday, said he was disappointed in the outcome but pleased with the turnout, which he called “tremendous.”
“It’s nice to see over 7,000 voters come out in early February for a special election. It shows that the residents do care,” Martin said. “I would’ve preferred to have been in the majority, but I’m proud of my constituents on Brimbal Avenue who brought this issue to everyone’s attention.”
Martin, whose ward includes Brimbal Avenue, said he hopes residents are kept more informed about the project as it moves forward. A recently formed Brimbal Avenue Citizens Advisory Committee has met twice so far with that goal in mind.
“One of the benefits is that the times we’ve met, the mayor has been there, and he can hear firsthand from the residents their concerns and what they would like to see for the neighborhood,” Martin said. “I’m hoping he hears their concerns.”
Dan DeAngelis of the North Beverly Neighborhood Association, which led the petition drive to put the rezoning question on the ballot, said the group will continue to work to ensure the resulting project is the right “size and scope” for the neighborhood.
The group favors the plan that would build a new connector road on its current footprint rather than on the former landfill.
“Hopefully, everyone will be engaged in the way it should’ve been from the start,” DeAngelis said. “We’re looking forward to working with the mayor to get the best possible solution.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special election results