Give voters final say on environmental zoning


Published: 7/23/2019 9:34:36 AM

On March 20, 10 members of the Greenfield City Council voted to make two major zoning changes as part of a controversial pairing with a proposed Greenfield Library. The zoning and the library had nothing to do with one another, but the zoning vote was seen as a way to secure enough council votes for a new library. The City’s Planning Board was required to review the zoning changes, and voted 4-1 against the idea of eliminating the French King overlay zone and weakening the Major Development Review ordinance — both of which trace back to 1993. But the Planning Board’s reasoning was barely mentioned when the council rushed its two zoning votes through to meet a library deadline. In 2017 the same zoning proposal was tabled for lack of City Council support.

As a consequence of the March zoning votes, two responses happened: 1) a citizen’s referendum request was filed pursuant to section 7-8b of the City’s Charter, and 2) more recently, an online petition was initiated to ask the City Council to put the zoning changes on the November ballot, something the City Council can do, on its own motion, pursuant to section 7-10 of our Charter.

These two actions are very different. Regarding the referendum petition, the city said challenging a zoning ordinance vote was permitted under our referendum charter. But the referendum request was denied by the city on the grounds that citizens had not gathered 326 signatures. The original petition submitted had 16 names on it, because according to section 7-7a of our charter, you need 10 names to “commence” a referendum petition. The City Clerk then passes the petition to the City Attorney, who determines if ”the measure as proposed may lawfully be proposed; (2) whether, it may be lawfully adopted by the Council; and (3) whether the Clerk may issue blank forms. These steps did not happen. By contrast, in 2011, the city ruled that a citizen referendum petition with 10 names was “appropriate to start the referendum process,” and would have required more signatures to be placed on the ballot. Yet the French King referendum petition was not called “appropriate to start.” To further complicate the referendum process, the state legislature changed the language in the referendum ordinance to make the syntax and content of the referendum process very confusing and unreasonable. As currently written, the City Council has to approve a “petition” to start the process going, not a “measure.” It appeared to be a fool’s errand to chase after hundreds of names for an ordinance that provided no assurance that the petition would be “accepted” by the City Council.

After the zoning referendum was denied, a citizen Complaint for Declaratory Relief was filed under Chapter 231A of the Mass. General Laws, which allows any citizen to request court involvement to “remove, and to afford relief from, uncertainty and insecurity with respect to rights…and other legal relations” resulting from the city’s interpretation and implementation of the Greenfield referendum statute, which one City Councilor said everyone agreed “was messed up.” It costs around $400 to file such a civil complaint. In response, the city filed an answer to this complaint asking the court to dismiss the complaint, and to seek legal fees from the citizen who filed the complaint. If the city were to be granted legal fees, it would have a chilling effect on any individual citizen or group who wants to challenge a broken process that denies them their right to challenge a City Council or School Committee vote.

The Superior Court Judge issued a “tracking order” which shows the complaint being resolved by May 30, 2022. This complaint could drag on for years. Instead of seeking to mediate a resolution to the complaint about the broken referendum process, the city chose to file what amounts to strategic litigation again public participation (a SLAPP action) to scare the citizen plaintiff with a huge legal bill incurred by the city. No citizen will ever again ask for court relief unless they have very deep pockets. This right should not be available only to big corporations — profit or non-profit. The city may not get back its legal costs, but it will also do nothing to fix a broken referendum process. It is not a difficult task to rewrite this part of our charter. The citizen who filed the complaint has clearly indicated he prefers mediation to a long-drawn out civil process. Why is this not being pursued?

The second issue: put the French King zoning on the ballot. The City already has a November election called, with one referendum (the library) already on the ballot. For no cost, voters could be asked to affirm or rescind the City Council’s 10-person vote to destroy the French King overlay, and weaken our Major Development Review, which is only used on very large projects. A petition has been started, and can be signed at: Voters should have the right to vote on the French King zoning based solely on zoning merits — without any connection to the library.

A number of City Councilors currently in office have used citizen initiatives or referendums to “bring it to the people,” and supported statewide ballot questions as well. In this case, shouldn’t the council find out if the voters of Greenfield want more gas stations and fast food restaurants, or want weaker control over large out-of-state developers? If they are confident the people want this put it on the ballot and find out. There is no financial cost to let the people decide what kind of city they want.

Al Norman, a Greenfield
resident, was involved in a zoning referendum campaign in October 1993 in which the voters of Greenfield overturned a Town Council vote to create a big box zone.

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Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
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