Haverhill Council Votes 5-4 to Reject Plan to Forego Public Hearings on Some Protected Land Conversions

File photograph. (Image licensed by Ingram Image.)

The Haverhill City Council gave thumbs down to a proposal last Tuesday that would have made public hearings optional in certain property transactions.

The proposal was based on an earlier one, crafted by City Solicitor William D. Cox Jr. and the Council’s Planning and Development Committee. It outlines procedures to be followed when the city receives notice from a property owner planning to end previously agreed preservation restrictions with tax benefits and instead develop the land. In those instances, the city has first right of refusal to purchase the property and a public hearing must be held.

Before councilors voted on the original proposal, however, Cox presented an amendment that, in certain circumstances, allows the Council to forego public hearings. Specifically, Cox referred to an ongoing transaction where a land owner is looking to sell his property to the Essex County Greenbelt Association.

“It might be helpful to the Council to put in a provision in this ordinance which allows you to waive that if you find that there is good cause to do so. Otherwise, you’d be causing a delay, essentially, in the process,” he explained.

Cox said foregoing the public hearing would help accelerate the process for the seller and could encourage others to follow suit. He emphasized the power to hold or not hold a public hearing would remain with the council.

Council members were divided on the issue. Councilor Joseph J. Bevilacqua expressed concern about not allowing abutters and others to be heard before decisions are made.

“We’re talking about the potential of the city spending upwards of a million dollars for open space land. I think the public has the right to discuss it and hear the reasons both pro and con,” he said.

Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan, however, said the idea has merit.

“I do agree that it makes sense to amend this ordinance. It’s very narrowly written so that if we choose to this, we choose to do this. If we don’t choose to waive a public hearing then we don’t waive a public hearing,” he said.

Ultimately, not all councilors were persuaded, voting 5-4 against the amendment, with Councilors Melinda E. Barrett, Michael S. McGonagle, Catherine P. Rogers and Sullivan in favor while Council President Timothy J. Jordan, Vice President John A. Michitson and Councilors Melissa J. Lewandowski, Shaun P. Toohey and Bevilacqua were opposed.

Councilors unanimously accepted the originally proposed procedures.

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