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Town Meeting 2023

Marathon Town Meeting session
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Cliftondale Square Overlay Zoning District falls five votes short of two-thirds majority needed as members complete annual warrant in marathon session ending at around midnight

  A majority of Town Meeting members voted 23-18 Monday night in support of a complex zoning article designed to spur the latest revitalization effort of Cliftondale Square. But the proposed Cliftondale Square Overlay Zoning District article fell five votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority needed for passage, as the third and final session of this year’s Annual Town Meeting ended after more than two and half hours of contentious debate at around midnight.

  “I got 101 phone calls – one was in favor of this article,” said Precinct 6 Town Meeting Member Jeanie Bartolo, one of the 18 members who supported the Planning Board recommendation against adoption of the zoning article.

  “Our Master Plan says to revitalize and rezone Cliftondale Square,” Precinct 2 Town Meeting Member Christopher P. Riley said.

  Many of the Cliftondale Square area residents who spoke during the deliberations expressed concerns that adoption of the Zoning Overlay District would have an overall negative impact on their neighborhood. “We do not have the room for 85 to 143 apartments,” Essex Street resident Cheryl Roberto testified. Some Cliftondale Square area residents worried that the proposed zoning changes could lead to the construction of five-story buildings, which they said would be completely out of character with the neighborhood.

  The Planning Board, in its review, called the proposed Zoning Overlay District “inappropriate for the Cliftondale Square Neighborhood.” Planning Board members cited overcrowding, excessive traffic and insufficient parking as their chief concerns.

Session Three highlights

  Overall, Town Meeting members spent more than four hours in the second floor auditorium at Town Hall, as they also approved:

  • A $107.5 million local government operating budget for the 2024 fiscal year that begins July 1. This comprises $75.9 million for the municipal department operating budgets and $31.6 million for the Saugus Public Schools operating budget.
  • A 5.0 percent increase in the water rates for Fiscal Year 2024, with all receipts to be held in the Water Enterprise Fund to be used exclusively for water expenses, water maintenance, water debt and interest and water improvement programs.
  • $5,887,002.00 funded from Sewer Enterprise Fund Revenue and $0.00 to come from Retained Earnings; $610,157.00 is to be appropriated in the General Fund funded by Sewer Enterprise Fund Revenue for Indirect Costs.
  • An article initiated by Precinct 10 Town Meeting Member Peter Manoogian to rename the property known as the Ballard School to “Ballard Gardens.” This proposal, which was approved unanimously, “supports the concept of demolishing the existing building, site preparation, repurposing where appropriate, elements and materials that can be incorporated into a passive green space with topographical features and designs that may include perennial planting, trees, brick walkways, a gazebo, a separately fenced area for dogs and a separate tot lot.”

A quick and effective Town Meeting session

  Town Counsel John Vasapolli said he thought the recently concluded Annual Town Meeting was one of the most expedient and efficient sessions he has experienced during his 42 years of giving legal advice to members. “I never remember the Town Meeting being accomplished in three sessions,” Vasapolli told The Saugus Advocate.

  “And that’s not a sign of a lack of interest. That’s a sign that Town Meeting is better prepared because the town manager and Finance Committee has been educating Town Meeting members. Any questions they had were already raised in the preliminary meetings,” he said.

  “And the good news is we’re in great financial shape, enjoying the highest bond rating this town has ever had,” he said.

  It is not unusual for sessions of the Annual Town Meeting to be continuing into June or later into the fiscal year. But completing its business by mid-May is indeed a departure from normal proceedings, according to Vasapolli.

  Vasapolli and other officials say it is also a bit unusual to continue discussion late into the night during any given session. “It very rarely goes to midnight,” Selectman Corinne Riley said.

  “I know that Town Meeting wanted to finish up the article before the end of the meeting. I was very glad that the motion made by a town meeting member from Precinct 10 was defeated to have the zoning change article postponed indefinitely,” Riley said.

  “Having served on the Cliftondale Revitalization Committee, living in the Cliftondale area my whole life, I was hoping the article passed to begin working toward a more active, vibrant and modern Cliftondale Square. All the concerns of traffic, parking, pedestrian safety could have been addressed in parallel. So many people expressed many concerns about traffic, safety, speeding, pedestrian safety and although the zoning article didn’t pass the 2/3, these issues are important enough to address them immediately, as safety always comes first,” she said.

  Precinct 2 Town Meeting Member Joe Vecchione, who has lived in Cliftondale all of his life, is the architect of the Cliftondale Square Overlay Zoning District. He presented a detailed half-hour audiovisual demonstration on the considerable numbers of studies conducted on Cliftondale revitalization over the years. Board of Selectmen Chair Anthony Cogliano, Board of Selectmen Vice Chair Debra Panetta and Selectman Michael Serino also shared their views on Article 21 during the Town Meeting session. Cogliano lobbied hard in support of the zoning proposal.

  “I find it hard to believe anyone thinks Cliftondale Square is fine as is,” Cogliano said in an interview.

  “We can’t move this town forward with backward thinkers,” he said.

A ballot question suggested

  Selectman Serino declared that “additional apartments in Cliftondale is not the solution.”

  “The town is committed to improving Cliftondale Square,” Serino said.

  He noted in recent years that Town Meeting and selectmen cleared the purchase of two properties for potential use as parking lots. He also cited a $2 million grant that the town manager had obtained for revitalization of Cliftondale. “I believe we can move forward with small steps,” he said.

  Board of Selectmen Vice Chair Panetta said she would not have a problem putting it on the ballot – a suggestion made by Precinct 9 Town Meeting Member Robert J. Long. “The voters here should be involved with it,” Long said.

  “We should not be honoring this on an urban renewal basis,” he said.

  Panetta expressed caution, based on the concerns she had heard from residents. “If there are concerns about it, I don’t want to take a premature vote,” Panetta said.

  Precinct 10 Town Meeting Member Peter Manoogian said there is much the town could do in providing tax incentives to landlords for the future development of Cliftondale Square. “But safety has to be resolved first,” Manoogian said.

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