SALEM — A largely forgotten piece of land along the North River, owned by one of the city's most historic cemeteries, could become a key piece of a controversial, $20 million housing development.
More than an acre of Harmony Grove Cemetery property may be acquired by MRM Project Management of Beverly for Legacy Park Apartments, a 141-apartment complex it wants to build at the site of the former Salem Oil & Grease factory on Grove Street.
"We have the land under agreement," said Joe Correnti, an attorney for the developers.
Correnti made the announcement at a public hearing Monday night before the Planning Board, which has been reviewing this project for several months.
The land is across Harmony Grove Road from the 100-acre cemetery and not within the fenced cemetery grounds, which hold the remains of noted abolitionists, more than a dozen former Salem mayors and the last surviving bodyguard of Gen. George Washington.
It was part of the original land purchased for the cemetery in the 1830s and 1840s, according to an attorney for the cemetery board. It once ran down to the edge of a mill pond that no longer exists. Part of it, a long thin strip, parallels the tidal North River and stretches all the way to the Peabody line.
More than a century ago, the city built Harmony Grove Road through the property, marooning this strip of land on the other side of the road.
"Once the road went in, that land really served no purpose for the cemetery," said attorney Francis Mayo. "I think (the board) saw this as an opportune time to divest themselves of that property."
Although it is an odd-shaped piece of property adjacent to the Moose lodge, it could prove valuable to the developer by providing just enough adjacent land to ease the pressure being applied by several city councilors and neighbors.
Some have criticized the size of Legacy Park, saying it is too dense for the neighborhood and will bring unwanted traffic and noise.
The developer has argued that it needs to build this much housing to offset the cost of demolishing several large buildings, cleaning up an old factory site and building on a challenging piece of property. Legacy Park will have three four-story apartment buildings, 215 parking spaces and an entrance off Harmony Grove Road.
Several councilors are upset because the project is being done under a zoning amendment they approved several years ago. But the change was made, they say, to encourage business, not residential development.
Ward 4 City Councilor Jerry Ryan, whose district borders the site, opposes the development because he feels it makes an end-run around zoning.
"The intent of business park development (zoning) was to promote business and increase the tax base," he said. "... They're pretty much residential and the business is an afterthought."
The mixed-use development includes commercial space in the former office of Salem Oil & Grease. The additional cemetery land could provide more business opportunities along Harmony Grove Road, Correnti said.
Under the city ordinance, the residential part of this development cannot exceed 50 percent of the site. Currently, the housing and related uses make up 49 percent of the 6.8 acres, according to the developer and city.
This additional cemetery land, about 1.5 acres, could provide some breathing room.
"We've heard clearly from the board this is preferable, so we would be willing to take, as a condition, that we file an amended plan to include this land," said Correnti.
The Planning Board meets again Oct. 18.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.