SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 16, 2013

Council takes closer look at candidates

By Bethany Bray
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — Mayor Kim Driscoll has four people in mind to fill seats on the city’s zoning and planning boards this month.

Usually, the mayor’s appointments receive final approval from the City Council with a quick vote and little, if any, discussion.

This time around, the council has called a subcommittee meeting to vet the mayor’s candidates before giving them the final nod.

The council’s subcommittee on government services will meet tonight at 6 at City Hall, 93 Washington St., to discuss the possible appointments. Driscoll has recommended residents Ben Anderson and Kirt Rieder for spots on the Planning Board and Tom Watkins and David Eppley for the Zoning Board of Appeals.

“We’re not doing this as a way to scare people off, or grill them. It’s more for the council’s sake, to know them better,” Ward 6 Councilor Paul Prevey said. “... (We’d like to know) about how they see the role of the board they’re joining. Just to get a better feel for who the person is — what they’re bringing to the table, what their outlook is and what they’re planning to do on the board.”

Some councilors feel Planning Board candidates need a closer look because of the board’s recent handling of a development proposal for the Salem Oil and Grease factory property.

The Planning Board voted 8-0 in October to grant a special permit to Legacy Park, a 141-apartment complex planned for the disused parcel along the North River Canal.

It will have three four-story apartment buildings, 215 parking spaces and an entrance off Harmony Grove Road.

The board’s approval of the development was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Prevey said.

The several councilors — and their constituents — who attended Planning Board meetings before the project was approved “walked away very frustrated,” Prevey said.

They felt the board was “giving in to the developer,” and their concerns fell on deaf ears through the process, he said.

The Oil and Grease redevelopment project was able to go forward because of a zoning amendment the City Council itself had approved, allowing up to 50 percent residential use in the business park district where the property is located. Councilors agreed to the zoning change to assist a planned — and later abandoned — Lowe’s development on Highland Avenue.

Some councilors felt the amended zoning law, meant to encourage business, not residential development, was misused in the Oil and Grease project.

Tonight’s subcommittee meeting will simply be “a conversation” with the mayor’s appointees, Prevey said.

The four candidates have been invited because both bodies deal with development, he said.

“When members of the council aren’t representing their constituency correctly ... the voters have the opportunity to turn us out of office. But with (city) boards, that’s not the case,” Prevey said. “I think we (councilors) should be a little bit more involved, so we know who we are getting.”

If approved by the council, Anderson would serve on the Planning Board through July 1, 2014, and Rieder would serve through July 1, 2016; Watkins would serve on the ZBA through May 1, 2015, and Eppley would serve through June 1, 2015.

Also tonight, at 6:30, the council’s subcommittee on administration and finance will meet at City Hall to discuss the city’s proposed lease of the City Hall Annex.

The city has been taking one-year extensions of its lease of 120 Washington St. after Mayor Kim Driscoll’s proposal to sign a five-year deal with the building owner was not approved by the City Council in 2011.

Both of today’s meetings are co-posted as meetings of the entire City Council, so members that aren’t on the subcommittees can attend and join in the discussion. The council’s next regular meeting is Thursday, Jan. 24.

Bethany Bray can be reached at bbray@salemnews.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.