City Council Recap: LCTV Grants, Roadwork on Avery

All councilmembers were present on Monday night for a meeting of Lowell City Council that lasted for approximately an hour. Of the four pieces of business on the evening’s agenda, two were approved unanimously while the other two passed on split votes.

After approving the consent agenda – which included approval of the agenda, the minutes of the Feb. 19 meeting and the payment of $637,879 in invoices – the floor was opened for public comment.

Public Comments: Federal Holidays, Preferred Vendors and CopperRock Construction

Resident Perry Beachum addressed the council with two questions. First, he asked why the council had met on Presidents Day when it had voted in December to always meet on Tuesday if a federal holiday was on Monday. He noted that at the start of the year, when councilmembers had approved their meeting dates for 2024, they included a date of Feb. 20. However, the council met on Feb. 19 instead.

At the Feb. 19 meeting, councilmembers approved a quote from a preferred vendor for repair work to be done on one of the city’s wells. Since the company was a preferred vendor, no other bids were received for the work. Beachum wondered how a company became a preferred vendor and if and when those vendors were reviewed.

He thought at least getting quotes occasionally from other companies would “make sure these preferred vendors are not taking advantage of knowing they are a preferred vendor,” Beachum said.

City Manager Mike Burns explained the Presidents Day meeting by saying: “When we changed the dates, we also stated by going to 4/10s (four 10-hour workdays), we were going to be open on Presidents Day, and we were going to treat it as a normal day.”

A review of the video from that meeting finds no mention of Presidents Day. At one point, there is some talk about whether city staff should have the day off if council is taking the night off, and Mayor Mike DeVore told Burns: “We’ll do this with our meetings. You can do with your staff what you want.”

“What I’m hearing is that if a holiday falls on a Monday, we don’t meet on a Monday,” Burns said later during the December meeting.

As for preferred vendors, Burns told Beachum on Monday: “Preferred vendors are..most of the time they’re the only one we can get the part from.” He added that these companies often have completed previous work for the city and going through a different company could create an additional cost.

However, not all the city’s preferred vendors relate to the repair of physical facilities and equipment. Williams & Works, for instance, is a preferred vendor and does not have to go through a bidding process for most of its work with the city.

Resident Pam Rowley also spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting. She welcomed Councilmember Eric Bartkus to the council before reiterating concerns she had with the manner in which a high-density development was approved for the site of the former Rollaway Fun Center. She noted that despite requests, members of the planning commission never met with neighbors to directly discuss their concerns.

According to Rowley, several attorneys were contacted about the site plan, and those individuals indicated there were issues with the approved plan and how it conflicted with provisions of the city’s Master Plan. But since a 30-day appeal window had closed, nothing could be done. Rowley said residents did not know there was a 30-day appeal window and felt the city had an obligation — if not legally, at least ethically — to let neighbors know about that option.

$142,000 Approved in LCTV Grants

In the first piece of business on the agenda, Dennis Kent presented the recommendations of the LCTV Endowment Board.

“We had approximately $142,000 to spend, and we got applications basically doubling that,” said Kent, who chairs the board.

That’s in contrast to last year when the board did not receive enough applications to account for all the money available. The LCTV Endowment Board was created with proceeds from the sale of Lowell Cable TV to Comcast in 2007.

Thirteen requests were recommended for approval, ranging in value from $500 to the Lowell Women’s Club for pillowcases for veterans to $40,000 to the Lowell Rotary Club and the City of Lowell to rebuild Creekside Kingdom.

The recommendations were unanimously approved by Lowell City Council.

Split Vote on Avery Street Engineering

Next on the agenda was consideration of $38,000 for design engineering for a potential road project on Division and Avery Streets. The total cost for the project is estimated at $521,000.

With the approval of the CopperRock project on E. Main Street, the city is looking at repaving Division Street from Main Street to Avery Street and Avery Street from Division to Grove. Although the section of Avery from Division to Horatio is in poor condition, it is not included on the city’s 7-year road plan. But with the addition of retail space and 39 residential units on the north 800 block of E. Main Street, it was apparently determined that the road is now worthy of some work.

During discussion on the CopperRock project, it was also noted that there is no water main on Avery, and the houses there have lateral pipes that, in some cases, cross other properties to reach a main. So, it is anticipated that when roadwork is completed, a water main can be run under Avery to service homes on the road.

Finally, with Avery being such a narrow road, it has been noted that emergency vehicles may have difficulty traveling down the street if cars are parked on either side of the road. The CopperRock project relies on on-street parking to meet the number of spaces required for a development of its density. Burns said there was enough right-of-way available on the road to widen it by a foot-and-a-half if the council so wished.

Bartkus asked about the timing of the CopperRock project, noting that he worried the city might fix the road only to have it damaged during construction of the mixed-use building.

“They are going to start construction once the court stuff is done,” Burns replied.

The “court stuff” refers to a dozen nearby property owners who have filed an objection in court over the vacation of Horatio Street. CopperRock has sued the city and nearby residents to force vacation the road. If approved by the court, the company will receive the roadway land, and it can be used for their project. Neighbors note it is an active road and used regularly by those in the area.

Bartkus also commented that if the roadway was widened then either trees could be lost on one side of the road or already small driveways may be shortened on the other side. Burns said it would be possible to simply not widen the road and prohibit parking on Avery instead.

“If we do this work, is it going to increase the water rates?” Bartkus asked.

That question was not answered, but Burns noted that council was under no obligation to put in a water main and the road could simply be repaved.

DeVore and Councilmember Marty Chambers both objected to that, saying that the council had in recent years always combined needed water and sewer upgrades with road projects.

“I’m just trying to watch out for our water rates,” Bartkus said. “That’s the number one complaint I heard during the campaign…to me, this doesn’t need to be done immediately.”

“But we’re hear to talk about the engineering side of it so let’s get it to a vote,” DeVore said and then made a motion to approve the design work.

The motion passed on a 4-1 vote with Bartkus being the no vote.

Sidewalk Exemption Approved on Split Vote

The other split vote of the night came when a resident of Shephard Drive asked to be exempt from a city ordinance which states that the addition of sidewalks “shall be required” in conjunction with residential, industrial or business construction in the city.

The Shephard Drive resident is constructing a large garage and asked to be exempt from the ordinance. It was noted that Shephard Drive has no sidewalks on it currently, and the property in question is on a hill.

In the past, exemptions to the ordinance were handled as variance requests through the Zoning Board of Appeals, but recently, the council has begun considering them outside of the variance process.

On Monday night, after a brief conversation, Lowell City Council voted 4-1 to exempt the property from the ordinance. DeVore was the no vote.

Other Meeting Items: Police Car, Marijuana Money

In the only other vote for the night, Lowell City Council voted unanimously to allow the Lowell Police Department to sell a 2015 GMC Acadia. Money from the sale will be used to outfit the department’s newest cruiser.

During the manager’s report, Burns said the city should be receiving about $473,000 from the state for its portion of the marijuana excise tax. The city’s portion is based on having eight facilities last year, although Burns said the city is now down to six.

Money from the marijuana excise tax will be put toward roadwork, with a project on Jackson Street being moved up a year to 2025.

“Seems like we’ve done more streets in the past four (years) than in the past 50,” Burns said.

Nicole Holst applied to fill a vacancy on the Planning Commission that was announced at the council’s Feb. 19 meeting. Councilmember Jim Salzwedel said he had no problem with Holst but thought it might be better to wait to make an appointment to give others a chance to apply, especially since the Planning Commission did not have a March meeting scheduled.

Chambers disagreed, saying it was vital that someone be appointed right away so they could connect with Williams & Works and be brought up to speed on the process of updating the city’s Master Plan.

“I’m not going to shun interest when interest is shown,” DeVore said and appointed Holst to the commission.

In council comments at the end, Chambers said, “Perry, this is for you” before relating a story about how he went to pay a bill at Lowell Light & Power on Presidents Day and found the utility closed for the holiday even though it did not say so on the LLP website. Beachum is chair of the LLP Board, and it was not clear if Chambers comments were meant as feedback to him as chair or were in response to public comments Beachum made last month about being unable to speak to someone at Lowell City Hall about a bill on a Friday.

The meeting adjourned at 7:58pm, and the next regular meeting of Lowell City Council will be on Monday, March 18, at 7pm in Lowell City Hall.

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