SALEM — The new owners of Shetland Park say a ward councilor's bid to block housing at the industrial park is "kneecapping us." But another councilor says it's Shetland who drew first blood.

"I'm a little taken aback by the comments we've heard tonight," said Ward 3 City Councilor Patti Morsillo. "We're here because they decided to jump way ahead in the process."

Ward 5 City Councilor Josh Turiel has asked the body to change a particular zoning format in place at Shetland Park — the Waterfront Industrial Overlay District — so that it can't support a housing project under "Planned Unit Development" rules, which are not now prohibited from the overlay. 

"This was brought before us because of Shetland Park's filing with the state," Turiel said. "They're looking at redevelopment of the complex, ideas, and have been working and advancing that along."

The filing with the state, since withdrawn by the architects working on Shetland's redevelopment, was a wetlands-focused "Environmental Notification Form" to initiate state wetlands review since the property is surrounded by the South River and Salem Harbor. When first filed, it referenced the possible construction of 1,425 apartments or condos on the site. Officials learned about the filing in mid-May, immediately prompting city Mayor Kim Driscoll to successfully demand that Prime withdraw the application.

The company has since said several times that the 1,425 referenced units was an imaginary ceiling, and that there have so far been no conversations attempting to establish how many units the project could actually support. 

Still, Turiel's filing seeks to shut down any possibility of units at the property. The hearing was continued to Sept. 30 amid questions of whether it constitutes spot zoning for its targeting of Shetland's property. The conversation also highlighted the possibility that the Waterfront Industrial Overlay can be used at Salem Harbor Footprint and elsewhere, which would eliminate the spot zoning concern.

Shetland's new owners, meanwhile, aren't enthusiastic about the fact that the proposal exists in the first place.

"It feels like it's kneecapping us. It's pulling the rug out from under us on the potential for what the site could be, by taking away one of the tools in the toolbox," said Sean Selby, a principal at Arrowstreet, one of the firms involved in the project. "If you take away the possibilities, then how are we to maneuver through the process and get at something, produce a design that everyone can get behind, that's good for the neighborhood and the community?"

Patrick Schmidt, a project manager at Avison Young, joined the meeting and took full responsibility for the state filing.

"I get it," Schmidt said. "I blindsided the group that's in front of me, and many people in town. But it wasn't an attempt to hurry up and try to get something permitted. We know we're here for the next four or five years (in order to get final approvals)."

An attorney representing the project — Bill Quinn, with Tinti, Quinn, Grover & Frey, a tenant at Shetland Park— spoke for several minutes on the harm the filing could cause for the process.

Turiel's request "doesn't compute well with (Prime Group's) idea of integrating in and becoming a long-term contributor to the city, and having a dialog with the city over what the long-term development will look like," Quinn said. 

Quinn added that taking away a property right "is really targeting my client only and has nothing to do with improving the planned unit development ordinance."

As a result, "people are going to be looking for relief," Quinn said, "and that isn't the situation any of us want."

After all three project proponents spoke, Morsillo admitted she isn't sure "how to move forward with this, because I really don't know if it's spot zoning."

Then again, "we're here because they messed up," Morsillo said.

"As far as I'm concerned, they've lost a lot of trust over the past couple months," Morsillo said. "I haven't been invited to any meetings with them. I don't know what city process they're doing."

The process they're running, she said, "is lacking, which is an understatement. And I hope, if nothing else, they can take away from this meeting that they need to do a whole lot better, and they need to come up with a better plan for building a project that's going to work there."

Visit bit.ly/2U3578R to read live coverage of this meeting.

To respond to this story or suggest another, contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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