Norman: Put French King overlay on November ballot

  • Sprawlbuster Al Norman, right, speaks with Mayor William Martin prior to a meeting on zoning changes to the French King Highway overlay district at the John Zon Community Center in February. Staff Photo/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2019 10:56:58 PM

GREENFIELD — Sprawlbuster Al Norman has put forth a petition on requesting the French King overlay district be put on the ballot in November alongside a vote for a $19.5 million public library.

The commercial growth restrictions along the French King Highway were set in place in 1993 after a failed attempt to build a Walmart in that area. The zoning restrictions barred fast food, drive-thrus, drive-ins and gas stations, businesses it was felt might follow development of a big box store there.

On March 20, City Council voted to allow more commercial development on French King Highway and to relax major development review criteria across the city in exchange for councilor votes in favor of the new public library.

Norman wants that March 20 vote of the council to go before voters in November in the form of a ballot question “separate from the library.”

“Voters should have the opportunity to vote on the library and the zoning, in a way that won’t effect one or the other,” Norman said.

Traditionally, there are three methods of overturning a City Council vote, according to Mayor William Martin’s office. One way is that a councilor who voted in favor of the ordinance can reconsider their vote within 48 hours of when the vote took place. Another is a veto from the mayor, which would have to take place within 10 days of a vote. There is also the citizen’s referendum process whereby a resident gathers signatures from registered voters to challenge a previous council vote, which needs to be done within 30 days of the vote.

There is another method that could occur at this point — the mayor, the council or the Planning Board could submit an order to go back to the original zoning. This process would need a positive vote from seven city councilors to initiate and a positive vote from nine councilors to pass.

City Council Vice President Karen “Rudy” Renaud said she does not intend to propose putting zoning on the ballot.

“I don’t quite understand the logic of the council putting something on the ballot that would overturn a vote we already took without a citizen’s referendum petition,” Renaud said.

At-Large Councilor Isaac Mass said he is unsure if a zoning change would be passed.

“If we wanted to initiate a new zone change, I don’t know if nine members of the council would vote in favor of it,” Mass said. “If the zone change were initiated, I would be opposed to changing the zoning to reinstate the overlay district.”

The library vote was put on the ballot after former City Councilor Steven Ronhave filed a petition in protest of the City Council’s March vote to approve financing for a new public library. That petition, signed by 452 registered voters, was certified.

Norman filed a citizen’s referendum petition after the March 20 council vote that removed zoning laws from a majority of the French King Highway corridor overlay district in exchange for a vote to approve the library project.

However, the city ruled Norman’s petition was invalid and later noted the process had changed following a tweak to the charter in 2017. Norman protested, calling it a clerical error that led to a substantial change in the petition process.

Norman said he used the official number from the charter ordinance section 7-7(a), which he said has the minimum set at 10 signatures.

“In both cases, the minimum to commence is 10 names — that’s how the ordinance reads. Then the lawyer looks at the wording and you proceed with the rest of the signatures,” Norman said. “The city lawyer blocked us, saying we didn’t submit enough signatures.”

On May 30, Norman filed a lawsuit in Franklin County Superior Court against the city concerning language in its charter about citizen’s petitions. The civil complaint requests the court to do two things: correct an error in the city charter or for the city to hold public hearings to pass a new measure that clarifies the citizen’s referendum process; and to allow the referendum petition he put forward.

“Lawsuits are not democratic,” Renaud said. “It’s a process left to those who are privileged, which leaves a whole lot of people on the sidelines.”

Norman is hoping the petition will urge the council to put the French King Highway zoning on the ballot.

“This petition site, social media, is another way to gather input,” Norman said. “The library is on the ballot, there’s no reason zoning shouldn’t be on it, too.”

Norman said if City Council takes no action in the meeting Wednesday at 7 p.m., which will be held at the John Zon Community Center, he believes the petition “should be able to demonstrate sufficient resident interest in having the French King zoning on the ballot before the council’s Aug. 14 meeting — which also gives the council time to get an opinion from the attorney general whether the Greenfield charter allows such a referendum on zoning to occur.

“The August City Council meeting is really the last opportunity the council has to put it on November’s ballot,” Norman added. “They could vote to do so in September, but that leaves both sides of the issue with little time to educate the voters.”

To sign the petition, which had garnered about 60 signatures as of 7 p.m. on Tuesday, visit

Reach Melina Bourdeau at or 413-772-0261, ext. 263.

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