I Go to City Council Meetings #24

Adjusting to virtual government, coronavirus resources, contentious and less contentious zoning ordinances

By Brian Z. Zayatz

 

On Thursday, March 19th, the Northampton City Council held its 7th meeting of the year via Zoom. Councilor Jim Nash, who upon the publication of this piece believes he has COVID-19, but has been unable to obtain a test, was absent. Mayor Narkewicz did attend the virtual meeting, and has since been diagnosed with COVID-19. After falling ill, he was able to obtain a test and receive his results within 48 hours.  

Approximately 15 people tuned in via Zoom or Northampton Open Media’s livestream.

Municipal government in the time of corona

This being the first City Council meeting since widespread shutdowns began occurring as coronavirus spreads across the US, Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra opened by stating that the virtual format of the meeting felt “very unifying” to her, in that each of the councilors was at home in his or her respective ward out of recognition of the common safety of all. Public comment took place via Zoom, with Councilor Sciarra unmuting people one by one to ask if they were there for public comment. All who did not wish to comment were asked to tune in via livestream so as not to bog down the connection. Residents had also been encouraged to submit public comments in writing, although it’s unclear if the Council received any, as none were ever read, raising questions as to whether the word “public” works as an adjective or an adverb: describing who makes the comments, or the manner in which the comments are made?

During public comment, two commenters expressed the sentiment that Zoom meetings should be reserved only for essential or emergency matters, the rest put off until meetings can be conducted in person again, to ensure accessibility. The Council, as is custom, did not respond to these concerns directly, although they did resurface during other discussions later in the evening. Councilor Dwight expressed that we may need to prepare to accept virtual meetings as the new normal for the foreseeable future. 

Announcements of coronavirus support resources

One public commenter and several councilors announced resources available and/or seeking volunteers for response to the coronavirus crisis. They are as follows:

Steve Connor from Veterans’ Services logged on during public comments to announce that his office is still open and answering all texts, emails, and phone calls. He encouraged veterans to reach out should they need anything at this time.

Councilor Dwight urged Northampton residents to reach out to their respective councilors and share the challenges they are facing, in order that the councilors may better shape their response to the crisis.

Councilor Rachel Maiore shared that Meals on Wheels is looking for drivers as more elder residents are electing to stay home. People interested in becoming drivers can email nancym@highlandvalley.org for more information. Maiore also plugged maresponds.org, which is organizing varying types of public health emergency responders. They are particularly looking for anyone with any background in the healthcare fields, but can find roles for those without such a background, as well.

Councilor Alex Jarrett thanked the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and the Western Mass Area Labor Federation for organizing around support and relief for workers at this time. He announced the PVWC’s emergency hotline, which is (413) 351-2300, as well as an online mutual aid hub organized by groups and individuals that Councilor Karen Foster had sent out to her constituents via email.

Mayor Narkewicz announced that, though schools were closed, they are still providing meal pickups to those who need them. Residents should check district websites for specifics.

Zoning ordinances

The bulk of the meeting was devoted to a series of zoning ordinances, most of them pertaining to specific lots, but one which could have big implications for development around the city which was the subject of extended debate. I found the language of the ordinance pretty impenetrable without context, and much of the debate was around whether there would be enough time for public comment on the matter if the first reading was done then, and the second reading done April 2nd, and neither of these meetings were conducted in person (there had already been three opportunities for public comment prior to this meeting: one at the Planning Board, and two at the Legislative Matters committee).

One comment by Councilor Jarrett caught my attention, which was that creating more high rent housing in the city would take more pressure off lower-rent properties. Again, lacking much context, I wasn’t sure how this related to the ordinance at hand, but it sounded important, so I followed up with Councilor Jarrett after the meeting, and he was able to fill me in a bit. Essentially, the ordinance makes it possible for proprietors or developers to alter non-comforming lots from one conforming use to another as long as no new non-comformities are created (for example, a single-family house that is on a lot zoned for a multifamily apartment building that is supposed to have 50 feet of frontage but only has 45, may be converted to a multifamily apartment building as long as it conforms to zoning restrictions in every other way). This is more or less the situation for a particular lot at the end of Dewey Court, and this ordinance has come to be seen by the neighbors, who are against the redevelopment project as it currently stands, as a referendum on that specific project. Jarrett finds this unfortunate, because there are other checks in the system that would allow neighbors to raise objections, and this ordinance could open up a lot of opportunities to expand housing in Northampton.

Speaking specifically about his comment about high-rent housing, Jarrett explained a) that any new developments are going to be more expensive than most existing housing, and b) that most of the lots affected by this ordinance would be older properties closer to downtown. Expanding opportunities for the creation of new, higher-rent housing through this ordinance is, Jarrett pointed out, only one piece of the puzzle, adding that we also need more affordable housing. Given that Massachusetts does not allow municipalities to implement rent control, Jarrett believes the City Council ought to be exploring all options for expanding housing in a city where rents are increasing with demand.

During discussion, Jarrett pushed to postpone the vote, in order to have more time for public comment, and to allow Councillor Nash, in whose ward is Dewey Court, to weigh in. Councilor Dwight expressed that he was open to postponing, but doubted any new information or arguments would be presented at this point that would move him. Other councilors seemed conflicted, noting that opponents are arguing not to scrap the ordinance’s goals, but to rework them into a different ordinance. Eventually, Jarrett moved to postpone, and the motion passed unanimously.

A closing thought:

Another juicy tidbit that came out of the discussion of this ordinance is that Councilor Dwight would seek to encourage or require landlords to lower rent if the state makes any efforts towards mortgage relief. That is great, but what about the numerous Northampton residents who don’t have access to housing during this crisis? Does the City Council have the power to compel Smith College, or, say, the Hotel Northampton, to open their vacant rooms to people experiencing homelessness? I was rather surprised that, after announcements, the coronavirus crisis was barely mentioned.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

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