GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 5, 2013

Voters face Conomo Point, riverwalk, budgets

By James Niedzinski
Staff Writer

---- — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a corrected version of this story. The initial version reported that the budget included an allocatioin for design plans for a new public safety facility, but that is no longer part of the budget or the warrant.

ESSEX — Facing 41 articles on their Annual Town Meeting warrant, Essex voters will decide beginning Monday night whether to create a new Conomo Point district, approve easements for a river walk, back new three-year contracts for two of the town’s municipal unions — all the while tackling the town’s fiscal 2014 budget and more.

The proposed operating budget for the town is up by roughly $166,766, up about 1.1 percent, compared to the general operating budget of about $15.6 million approved last year.

In its annual report, the Finance Committee notes about $6.5 million for the regional school allocations, $1,589,014 for the public safety budget, $1,306,587 for general government costs and $1,910,643 for the sewer enterprise fund. Part of the general government budget also includes the water enterprise fund.

The report states the fire department has requested an additional $35,000 for salaries, citing the need for daytime coverage. The town stands to save $150,000 through the regional dispatch center.

The full warrant can be found online at essexma.org or at the Town Clerk’s office, while the meeting – tentatively planned to cover two nights — is set to start both Monday and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Essex Elementary School.

Of the 41 warrant articles, 11 of them deal with Conomo Point — six proposed by town officials, and five others as citizen petitions.

Article 10, if passed, would create a district known as central Conomo Point. The creation of the district is the first step in selling the areas of Robbins Island Road and Beach Circle.

If the district is created, an article would appear on the 2014 Annual Town Meeting warrant that would propose the sale of the district. Beach Circle and Robbins Island Road contain roughly 22 properties, their sale could net the town roughly $8,278,000, according to preliminary figures presented by the Finance Committee during a public forum.

The Board of Selectmen issued a letter, mailed to all of the residents of Essex earlier this week.

”Parks, waterfront access and other amenities and issues aside, Conomo Point is first and foremost a financial issue for the town,” the letter reads.

The plan, which also recommends the town retaining ownership of much of northern Conomo Point and continue leasing properties for 10 to 15 years, was put in place to meet a consent agreement with state Department of Environmental Protection to limit waste water flow to 10,000 gallons per day. However, the state does not require the land be sold.

The letter also states that, to meet the waste water requirement, the equivalent of 90 bedrooms need to be removed from Conomo Point.

However, as a representative from Brown Sardina, one of the planning firms hired by the town pointed out, this could mean redefining what a bedroom is, the reduction would not atomically tear down houses.

“The selectmen’s plan provides a thoughtful balance between responsibility protecting the town’s financial standing and provide more public access to Conomo Point,” the letter reads. “The town could realize grater one-time revenue by selling more property, however this would be at the cost of losing the waterfront land forever.”

Bruce Fortier, a resident that has raised issues with Conomo Point plans in the past, is outspoken against the article.

”There is nothing about improving the quality of life for townspeople,” he said of the plan.

The letter states the plan is the best mix of financial security and providing access to Conomo Point, and suggestions were well thought out and had a high level of public input.

Fortier, citing previous town meeting votes which were non-binding, disagreed.

”It’s not the town’s plan, it’s the selectmen’s plan,” he said.

The letter notes incremental improvements to waterfront access would be funded by lease revenues, and would be completed in the next 5 to 10 years.

”There is no master plan for Conomo Point,” he said. “Creating residential districts is known not to benefit any town.”

A letter from Kimberly Drake, who chairs the Planning Board, noted that a preliminary or definitive subdivision plan application has been submitted with the Town Clerk, although one would have to be submitted if the article passes.

This is not the first plan the town has filed with the state DEP, if the voters reject the district at the Annual Town Meeting, officials will have 60 days to submit a new plan.

Other Conomo Point articles by the Board of Selectmen include raising and appropriating funds for a final construction plans in the north, another would allocate money for more appraisals, others would add to the legal budget and allow officials to renovate or demolish structures.

Some citizen petition articles include retaining land in northern Conomo Point once leases expire, another would set aside all town owned land in the north and set aside revenue toward a construction of a park. Another would stall all sales until a master plan is in place and segregate Conomo Point revenues.

The Finance Committee previously told the Times of negative financial implications if the lots were not sold and the possibility of increased legal fees.

Fortier said the negative financial consequences of keeping the land are exaggerated.

Articles 31 and 32 would allow the town to take easements on private land to allow the construction of a river-walk project and allow the Army Corps of Engineers to clean sections of the Essex River. The riverwalk project was backed by the Center for Economic Development and Sustainability at Salem State University and the Essex Merchants Group.

Voters will also take up new, three year contracts with the Essex Police Benevolent Association (EPBA) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents Department of Public Works and clerical workers in Essex.

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.