The following was distributed earlier today as my weekly Substack newsletter on Lowell politics. If you’d like to receive this weekly update by email in the future, sign up here.
Before I get to the latest Lowell political news, here are two newly scheduled events that may be of interest:
Lowell Walks – On Saturday, August 5, 2023, at 10am, I will lead a guided walking tour of the North Common and the Acre. The tour starts at the Murkland Elementary School at 350 Adams Street, Lowell, and will last approximately 90 minutes. The tour is free and is done in partnership with Lowell National Historical Park. No need to register; just show up.
Lowell Cemetery tours – This fall’s tours of Lowell Cemetery will take place on Saturday, September 30, 2023, and on Sunday, October 1, 2023, both beginning at 10am at the cemetery’s Knapp Avenue gate (77 Knapp Ave, Lowell). Both tours will cover the same content and will last approximately 90 minutes. They are free and require no advanced registration.
The Lowell Election Office has posted the final list of candidates for this fall’s municipal election. Although some offices are contested, there will be no preliminary elections, either for the Council or for the School Committee.
To review, a preliminary election is required for any office for which the number of candidates is more than double the number of seats to be filled. For example, there are three “at large” city council seats. If there were seven or more candidates, a preliminary election would be needed to reduce the number of candidates to six, which is double the number of seats to be filled. Similarly, in a council district where there is only one seat, three or more candidates would be needed for there to be a preliminary election. Had one or two districts drawn three or more candidates, only those districts would hold preliminary elections; there would not be a citywide preliminary.
With that as background, here are the candidates by office with annotations indicating incumbents and former elected offices held:
City Council At Large (three seats)
- Rita M Mercier (incumbent)
- Vesna Nuon (incumbent)
- Corey A. Belanger (former City Councilor)
- Erik R. Gitschier (current District Councilor)
- Bobby Tugbiyele
- Virak Uy
(Current incumbent John Drinkwater is not running for reelection).
- Daniel P. Rourke (incumbent)
- Corey Michael Robinson (incumbent)
- Martin J. Hogan
- John J. Leahy (incumbent)
- Wayne C. Jenness Jr. (incumbent)
- Amada Gregory
- Kimberly A. Scott (incumbent)
- Susie Sophea Chhoun (current School Committee member)
- Sokhary Chan Chau (incumbent)
- Justin Savopung Ford
- Paul Ratha Yem (incumbent)
- Fru Nde Nkimbeng
- Ty Chum
- John G. Descoteaux
(Current incumbent Erik Gitschier is running for an At Large Council seat)
School Committee At Large (two seats)
- Jacqueline Ann Doherty
- Connie A. Martin
SC District 1
- Stacey L. Thompson (incumbent)
- Fred W. Bahou (former Vocational SC Member)
SC District 2
- Eileen P. DelRossi (incumbent
SC District 3
- David J. Conway (former Councilor & SC Member)
(Current incumbent Susie Chhoun is running for City Council.)
SC District 4
- Dominik Hok Lay (incumbent)
So that’s the 2023 election lineup. The Municipal Election is on Tuesday, November 7, 2023. Early voting will be available from October 25 through November 3. The deadline to apply for Vote by Mail is October 31, 2023 (although that would be cutting it close); and the last day to register to vote is October 28, 2023. Had a preliminary election been necessary – which it is not – it would have been held on Tuesday, September 5, 2023.
Now for the July 11, 2023, Lowell City Council meeting which I’m only now getting to . . .
The meeting was dominated by discussions of two familiar issues: Accessary Dwelling Units (ADUs) and homelessness – or, more accurately, vagrancy and crime that get lumped under the broader category of homelessness.
First, the ADU discussion. To review, last summer the Council took up a proposal to amend the city’s zoning code to allow for the construction of accessory dwelling units in all single family zones in the city. Since then, there have been at least four City Council subcommittee meetings that have reviewed and refined the proposal, plus numerous discussions during Council meetings, as well as much discussion among neighborhood groups and others.
The main objective of the proposal is to increase the amount of housing in the city by allowing a homeowner to create an “accessory unit” within their own dwelling or in another structure on their lot such as a detached garage. That unit could then be rented, or the homeowner could live in the accessory unit and rent the main residence.
The proposed ordinance would allow the ADU “by right” in most cases, meaning individual proposals would not require permission from a regulatory board such as the Planning or Zoning Board of Appeals. A number of limitations on things such as unit size and parking requirements are included in the proposed ordinance, however, most of them could be waived through a special permit process or by obtaining a variance.
The agenda for the July 11, 2023, City Council meeting included a public hearing on the ADU Zoning Amendment, however, when that was called, Mayor Sokhary Chau announced that the public hearing would instead be continued to the Council’s next meeting on July 25, 2023.
Amending the city’s zoning code involves a complex blend of law and procedure with multiple requirements and deadlines. These must be strictly adhered to otherwise someone who challenged the law in the future could win on a technicality and invalidate the ordinance with chaotic consequences. One such requirement is to have multiple “readings” of the motion, spread over time. For instance, the first “reading” of this version of the ADU amendment was at the Council’s May 16, 2023, meeting. Here is the entry in the minutes of that evening’s meeting:
In City Council, Given 1st Reading, Motion by C. Leahy, seconded by C. Drinkwater to refer to Planning Board for report and recommendation and to City Council public hearing on July 11, 2023 at 7 PM. Adopted per Roll Call vote 6 yeas, 4 nays (VC Gitschier, C. Mercier, C. Robinson, C. Scott), 1 absent (M. Chau). So voted. C. Mercier could not support the ordinance as drafted as it appears to lack certain provisions found in other ordinances. C. Drinkwater commented on the extensive work done on the draft and is very similar to other communities. C. Robinson noted he would not support the ordinance as questions remain. C. Scott noted non-support of the ordinance as questions remaining regarding special permits and variances as well as budgeting for added inspectors. C. Jenness stated that it is ready for public hearing and should be referred as it is two months away which allows for more meetings and more questions. Camilo Espitia (DPD) noted the extensive subcommittee process and that there are legal requirements which must be followed in all ordinances. C. Jenness noted it was the right next step and that amendments could be added at hearing. C. Rourke favored a public hearing. C. Yem favored moving to public hearing with this draft. Vice Chair Gitschier noted that draft was not received in appropriate time frame. C. Drinkwater noted changes had been made at subcommittee level in terms of making it less restrictive. C. Mercier noted that there was no limit on bedrooms in the draft. Mr. Espitia noted language and that size of units dictates layout of units and he further commented on variances, special permits and parking.
So back on May 16, the Council voted to (1) refer the proposed amendment to the Planning Board for a report and a non-binding recommendation (which is required before the Council may vote to amend the zoning code) and (2) to schedule the proposed amendment for a public hearing on July 11, 2023, at 7 pm.
However, when July 11 arrived, the Planning Board had not yet taken up the proposed amendment. With no Planning Board recommendation, the Council was unable to go forward with the public hearing. Because a notice of a public hearing must be posted in advance and published in the local newspaper (which is a substantial expense), public hearings must be scheduled far in advance. When something arises that prevents the City Council from going forward with an already-scheduled public hearing, the standard procedure is to formally “open” the public hearing on the scheduled date and time but then immediately continue it to a future date and time. As long as you do that, you don’t have to re-advertise and repost the continuation date.
That’s what Mayor Chau seemed intent on doing on Tuesday night, but Councilor Erik Gitschier instead moved to pre-empt the public hearing and send the entire proposal to the Division of Planning and Development for more refinements. Councilor Rita Mercier seconded the motion. In debating this motion, several Councilors expressed their views for or against the proposed ordinance, and the Assistant City Clerk and Assistant City Solicitor on duty at this meeting both voiced procedural concerns about upending the public hearing schedule that had previously been established. (Councilor Mercier ended up withdrawing her second of Councilor Gitschier’s motion, but Councilor Corey Robinson seconded the motion instead, so it proceeded).
When the vote was finally called, the motion to refer the proposal to DPD was defeated. Voting YES were Councilors Gitschier, Mercier, Robinson and Kim Scott. Voting NO were Councilors John Drinkwater, Wayne Jenness, Vesna Nuon, Dan Rourke, Paul Yem, and Mayor Chau. The motion lost by a 4 to 6 vote (with Councilor John Leahy absent). The Council then continued the public hearing to its July 25 meeting by a voice vote (although Councilor Gitschier could be heard voting NO).
There’s a saying in politics, “That’s why they count the votes.” It arises when a candidate who was expected to win an election by a wide margin ends up losing. For that reason, it would be a mistake to look at these procedural votes as a proxy on how Councilors will ultimately vote on the ordinance. Still, when the ADU proposal came up on May 16 and again last Tuesday, Councilors were pretty clear on where they stood.
On the May 16 vote to advance the proposal to a public hearing, the following Councilors voted YES which could be interpreted at least as leaning in favor of it:
(Mayor Chau was absent that night).
On July 11, the following Councilors voted in favor of continuing the public hearing process (which was a “no” vote in that evening’s context):
(Councilor Leahy was absent).
The same four Councilors voted against advancing the ADU measure at both the May 16 and July 11 meetings:
Looking ahead to this Tuesday night’s Council meeting, the continued ADU public hearing is on the agenda and will likely go forward since the Planning Board held its public hearing on July 17, 2023, forwarded its recommendation to the City Council.
Because the City Council and others last Tuesday night had brought up the ADU proposal not being addressed by the Planning Board at its June 22, 2023, meeting, the Planning Board opened this meeting with an explanation of the delay, saying it had been fully prepared to take up the ADU amendment at its June 22, 2023 meeting but the notice for that public meeting that had been posted and published in the newspaper stated that the public hearing would be on MONDAY, June 22, 2023, when June 22 was a Thursday. That made the posting and advertisement defective so it had to be redone, which is how the ADU matter ended up before the Planning Board on July 17.
After listening to the many members of the public who spoke at the public hearing both for and against the proposal, the four members of the Planning Board then shared their own thoughts on the matter. All were against the proposed ADU amendment, or at least against this version of it. The Board voted unanimously to make a NEGATIVE recommendation to the City Council on the ADU proposal for the following reasons (which are copied verbatim from the Planning Board’s communication to the City Council):
- The Board expressed concern about the potential increases to density that the proposed Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance may create;
- The Board expressed concern about allowing ADUs, particularly detached ADUs, by-right rather than by special permit;
- The Board suggested revisiting the minimum parking requirement created in the ordinance and investigating a potential maximum parking requirement;
- The Board recommended further research into the lot sizes in each zoning district in the city as they relate to the proposed ordinance;
- The Board recommended further research into detached dwelling units and their effects on neighborhood character as well as a design review process for detached ADUs;
- The Board expressed concern regarding the monitoring and administration of the owner occupancy requirement stipulated in the ordinance; and
- The Board requested to add a definition of “short-term rental” to the proposed zoning amendment package.
When the Council resumes its ADU public hearing this coming Tuesday, it will be interesting to see how the Planning Board recommendation is received. That recommendation is a non-binding one, but the Planning Board’s unanimity in rejecting this proposal could enhance the weight of the recommendation. There haven’t been many close votes that have come before this Council in this term, but I expect we’ll see one on Tuesday night.
The other big discussion last Tuesday came on a Councilor Corey Robinson motion that requested the City Manager “work with the proper department to develop a proactive solution to vagrancy, substance abuse, loitering issues, around St. John’s Church area.” This would be St. John’s Episcopal Church on Gorham Street, right next to the former Superior Courthouse which has been officially vacant since March 2020. I say “officially” vacant, because at various times since, individuals have taken up unofficial residency in and around the building which prompted the Commonwealth (at the city’s request, I believe) to enclose the entire Superior Court property in six-foot high chain linked fencing. This obstacle prompted much of the criminal activity that took place there to slide across Hobson Street to the neighboring church. Three members of the St. John’s community spoke on this motion and described a dystopian environment filled with used needles, discarded clothing, and human excrement in doorways.
Councilors expressed outrage, which is not new, but there also was a noticeable uptick in the frustration level of Councilors that nothing being done by the city seems to make a difference. City Manager Tom Golden disputed that, saying that the recent redeployment of more police in that area is making a difference, but then assured Councilors that the long awaited “regional summit” on homelessness has been planned and the date will be announced “in a few days.”
My delayed coverage of the July 11 City Council meeting was prompted by a recent visit to Washington, DC, one of my favorite destinations. While there, I visited two relatively new monuments for the first time: The World War I Memorial and the Dwight Eisenhower Memorial. I also saw an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery on the Spanish-American War which, like so much else in US and world history, has strong Lowell connections.
I did a blog post on the WWI Memorial yesterday and will have additional posts about the other two in the coming week on richardhowe.com, so please check them out.