, Salem, MA

January 19, 2014

20% rule hovers over election

Paul Leighton
Staff Writer

---- — When Barnstable residents went to the polls in 2009 to vote on a controversial sewer project, 77 percent voted against it — and lost.

The defeat came about because fewer than 20 percent of the town’s registered voters turned out for the election, a standard that had to be reached to validate the vote in the citizens referendum.

“A lot of the people in town were disturbed by it,” recalled Barnstable resident John Julius, one of the ‘no’ advocates. “The gun was stuck to our head because we had to get the 20 percent.”

Opponents of the Brimbal Avenue rezoning will be facing an even higher obstacle in the Feb. 8 special election.

According to the Beverly City Charter, at least 20 percent of the city’s registered voters — or about 5,100 people — will have to vote ‘no’ to overturn the City Council’s decision to rezone.

If the turnout is only 20 percent, as it was in last September’s preliminary election, every voter would have to vote ‘no’ for the ‘no’ vote to prevail.

The 20 percent rule was set in 1995 when voters approved a new city charter. Charlie Grimes, who served as chairman of the Charter Commission, said commission members wanted to make sure that decisions by elected officials couldn’t be overturned by a small group of residents.

“You could have 500 people go to the polls out of an electorate of 25,000,” Grimes said. “We need to have a clear statement by enough of the population to know this is not some fluke.”

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office said he did not know how many communities have instituted minimum voter requirements for referendum questions, which seek to repeal a law.

Barnstable Town Clerk Ann Quirk said she thinks it’s more common to set a minimum turnout for referendum questions, rather than Beverly’s requirement of a minimum number of votes to overturn a measure.

Like Barnstable in 2009, a referendum election on Nantucket last July was invalidated because it failed to draw a minimum number of voters, in that case 15 percent.

Ironically, the Beverly City Charter was adopted during the same election in November of 1995 when Beverly voters last faced a referendum ballot question.

Since the new charter was not yet in effect, that ballot question — on whether to rezone property to allow for the construction of the Stop & Shop on Elliott Street — was not subject to the 20 percent rule. The rezoning passed by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

Grimes said there was no specific reason why commission members decided to require a minimum number of votes to overturn a measure, rather than requiring a minimum turnout, or why they set the bar at 20 percent.

“It really comes down to a debate as to what is enough,” he said. “There’s no tremendous logic that says it’s got to be 20 instead of 15, or 20 instead of 25. It was just, ‘Let’s draw the line somewhere.’”

Voters will decide whether or not to overturn a decision by the City Council to rezone a 3.6-acre piece of land on Brimbal Avenue. The rezoning would enable a land swap between the state and a developer, and allow the developer to apply for a special permit from the Planning Board to build a $20 million shopping plaza anchored by a Whole Foods Market.

The development of the shopping plaza would trigger a $5.2 million traffic project that includes moving the Sohier Road/Brimbal Avenue connector road and building roundabouts at both ends of the road.

Proponents say the project will improve traffic flow and eliminate dangerous left-hand turns. Opponents say the shopping plaza will draw more traffic to an already-busy area and that the traffic project is out of scale for the area.

The developer, CEA Group President Steven Cohen, said last week that he will build a shopping plaza on his current land if the rezoning does not pass, but that the plaza would not include a Whole Foods Market because it would not be “economically feasible” on a smaller site.

That statement contradicts a handout from CEA Group last September that said Whole Foods would be built even if the rezoning does not pass.

Asked to explain the change, Cohen said in an email, “CEA believes it would be desirable for Whole Foods to remain as part of the project and previously assumed that that would be the case. However, upon more careful study, CEA no longer believes that that option would be feasible.”

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or