BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — The plan to reshape Brimbal Avenue will now be decided by voters.
The City Council last night set a special election for Saturday, Feb. 8, at Beverly High School to determine the fate of a proposed $20 million shopping plaza and a $25 million roadway project.
Councilors were obligated to authorize the election after residents submitted a petition last month with nearly 3,600 signatures.
“Obviously, we’re grateful for the chance for the city to vote on it,” said Dan DeAngelis, a Brimbal Avenue resident and member of the North Beverly Neighborhood Association, which led the petition drive.
The citizen petition required the City Council to reconsider its previous vote on the project. When councilors re-voted the exact same way last night — 7-2 in favor of a zoning change that would allow the project to proceed — it kicked in a requirement to put the question to voters at a special election.
Councilors voted to hold the election at only one location, the high school, rather than the six regular polling locations throughout the city.
Running an election with a single polling location will cost the city less money. It will also avoid having to cancel school for the day at the elementary schools where voters normally vote.
DeAngelis said he is worried that some voters either will not know that the voting is at the high school or will have more difficulty getting there in inclement weather than if they were voting at their nearby polling place.
“I’m concerned that voters might not be able to get out to the polls,” he said. “But truth be told, we’re grateful we got this on the ballot.”
The special election will decide a technical question — whether to change the zoning on a 21/2-acre parcel of land on Brimbal Avenue — with big implications. Without the zoning change, the state will not be able to proceed with its current plans to redesign the roads in the area.
The state is planning a $5 million project to redesign the interchange between Route 128 and Brimbal Avenue, and it hopes to add a larger, second phase that would cost $20 million and include a bridge over the highway.
Councilors took their vote last night without comment. As they did the first time around, council President Paul Guanci and Ward 5 Councilor Don Martin voted against the rezoning.
In a letter to the City Council yesterday, Mayor Bill Scanlon said a vote against the zoning change would “effectively” be a vote against a $5 million state grant the city is expecting to construct the first phase of the project.
Scanlon, who has been a strong proponent of the plan for years, said it would not only improve traffic flow and safety but also open up land on both sides of the highway for development, generating needed tax revenue for the city.
But the plans have faced strong opposition from residents who say the project is too large and would actually increase traffic, particularly with the Whole Foods Market that is planned to be included in the plaza.
The state and developer are planning to swap pieces of land to make the project work. That exchange, which was approved by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, would allow the state to move the road that connects Sohier Road and Brimbal Avenue to give vehicles more room to stack up onto Route 128 during backups.
Speaking to the council last night, DeAngelis said taxpayers will be on the hook to clean up the land acquired in the swap, which is a former dump.
DeAngelis said there are other options to fix traffic in the area that are “more reasonable in size and scope,” including the installation of a “limited number of traffic lights.”
The poll at the high school will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Feb. 8, the same hours as a regular election.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.