Wednesday, the nine-member council was presented with an ordinance to consider using eminent domain (legal means) to purchase the Union Dry Dock business on the northern waterfront. Mayor Dawn Zimmer has pursued the land for a park, while some residents including Councilman Michael DeFusco (who is running for mayor) opposed the use of eminent domain for the plans.
In the end, the council decided not to take a final vote on the Dry Dock matter until after the Nov. 7 election for mayor.
"To make sure this is policy not politics, the second reading will be after the election,” –Jen Giattino
The council voted to introduce an ordinance about eminent domain, but were split on whether to take a final vote before the mayoral election.
The council voted 6-3 to schedule the final vote for Nov. 13, a week after the election.
"This is very important to all of us," said Council President and mayoral candidate Jen Giattino, “to make sure this is policy, not politics, the second reading will be after the election.”
Giattino is running for mayor along with Councilmen Ravi Bhalla and Michael DeFusco. Councilmen Jim Doyle and David Mello are running for council seats on different tickets. That means five of the nine council people are running for office on Nov. 7.
In an interview the day after the meeting, Zimmer said that the city recently received a letter stating Union Dry Dock could not discuss the sale of the property at this time.
She had met with Union Dry Dock earlier this year to discuss possibly purchasing the land for a waterfront park.
Zimmer said that the letter has led her to believe that the owners may already be in negotiations with another buyer. This is why, Zimmer said, she asked the council for the use of eminent domain as a negotiating tool.
She said it’s an important tool that in the past enabled the city to obtain the land for the recently opened Southwest Park and Pop-up Park in the northwest.
DeFusco released a statement on the issue two weeks ago, in which he condemned the use of eminent domain, saying it “would plunge us into yet another costly litigation with a city property owner.”
Earlier this year, DeFusco announced his own concept plan for the property, including an urban beach and floating community pool as part of his campaign.
Union Dry Dock did not return two calls for comment before publication.
Just do it
Councilman Michael Russo opposed postponing the final vote on the ordinance until after the election. He said he believes it is important for the public to know where the candidates and councilmembers stand on the issue.
Bhalla and Doyle also voted against postponing the final vote.
During the portion for the public to speak out, Karen Nason, a local business owner who is also running for mayor, condemned the use of eminent domain.
The Fund for a Better Waterfront, a nonprofit group that works to keep the waterfront accessible, originally urged the city to move to acquire the land, but in a letter to the City Council before the meeting, they denounced the use of eminent domain to do so.
The letter states “Eminent domain, the government’s power to take an individual’s private property without their consent, is a drastic action that should be used sparingly and judiciously, and only as a last resort. It is ill advised to threaten its use at the inception of a complex land transaction such as this. This ordinance could jeopardize the ultimate success of this effort or delay its resolution for a number of years.”
The group added, “Turning this important and complicated matter into an open political issue a month before a mayoral election is certainly poor timing at best.”
The group urged the council to wait until a new administration takes over, “as the acquisition of the sit could take a number of months, even a number of years.”
Washington Street construction
The ongoing construction on Washington Street was temporarily halted on Thursday Sept. 28 after a traffic light fell on a pedestrian pushing a baby carriage. The woman was not seriously injured and the child was not hit.
The barricades on existing construction have remained up during the suspension.
Councilman Michael Russo sponsored a resolution on Wednesday to require a safety review and council approval before construction can resume.
However, the matter failed in a 4-1-2 vote after the city explained that the city and private inspectors are already doing a safety review. Some council members said that waiting for council approval of the review will just hold up construction.
Patrick Wherry, the city’s assistant business administrator, told the council of several instances in which there have been safety issues during construction.
“There have been other concerns the city has had, such as a road saw that malfunctioned and the saw blade come off, which we consider serious,” he said. “There are other issues with trenching… They had a worker who cut his own leg with a saw.”
“The reason I asked for it is because we as a council, were never brought up to speed as to what has been going on,” said Russo. “Tonight, your explanation is the first time I’m hearing of those other safety instances.”
Councilman Peter Cunningham said that he “walk[s] Washington Street almost every morning and sometimes you just don’t know where a construction site ends.”
He said often the barricades are knocked down or not positioned properly.
Wherry said the review may be finished by Wednesday Oct. 11.
Business Administrator Stephen Marks said that officials had a meeting on Tuesday, and the city will now have inspectors assigned to the construction sites to monitor the safety. He added that the contractor is hiring an outside firm to help with the safety inspections.
The project is managed by T& M Associates, which has four or five inspectors of its own, and T&M associates is in turn managed by several different city employees, depending on what is being managed.
“There is a team approach,” said Marks.
The approach includes Director Ryan Sharp, as well as the Office of Emergency Management, the Police Department, and some city inspectors.
Councilman Ravi Bhalla, Councilman Peter Cunningham, Council President Jen Giattino, and Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher voted against Russo’s proposal, and Councilman Jim Doyle abstained. Fisher said she is concerned the resolution would additionally slow down the construction as it “adds a layer of administration on a substantial project,” and there could be problems getting the entire council to agree to restart it again.
However, Cunningham and Fisher said they would like to see the project reviewed again in subcommittee.
Wherry noted that a few issues have slowed the project down a bit, including three unanticipated underground oil tanks that need to be removed, and “cavernous space under the sidewalk” that needed to be filled in.
The City Council approved a resolution for a change order to the project for $180,514.62, which would cover the cost to remove the three oil tanks and fix the spaces under the sidewalk. It would also cover installation of water service from a curb box to a property that was without water service, exploratory work for a leaking water main that was thought to be the responsibility of the contractor, and provide enough funds for the removal of an additional three tanks should workers come across them.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at email@example.com.