Inside Stories

Council Meeting Recap: October 17, 2023

1. One Issue Meeting

Council chambers were filled to capacity last night, and I think we all know why. Dear reader, I’m happy to report that the Kiwanis Club’s Annual Monsterbash and Halloween Stroll is happening Saturday, October 28 from 12 PM – 3 PM. [Unless Belvidere decides otherwise].

2. Profiles In Courage

At long last, we had a public hearing and vote on an ordinance that would allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), by right, throughout the city.

For the past several months, this measure sure looked like it was sailing toward approval. In July, Mayor Chau released an idealistic op-ed titled: “This is the right moment to approve accessory dwelling units in Lowell.” I loved it. Change was in the air. The “Pro-ADU” camp had the momentum and the votes. As recently as a week ago, there were seven councilors assumed to be favor (Chau, Drinkwater, Jenness, Leahy, Nuon, Rourke and Yem) and only four against (Gitschier, Mercier, Robinson and Scott). This would be a cakewalk.

Last night, however, the ordinance crashed and burned by a vote of 7-4 after three councilors (Mayor Chau, Councilors Nuon, and Leahy) withdrew their support and voted “no.”

So what happened? The city has been having ADU discussions for the past two years. I watched all of it. Closely. I mistook the silence coming out of District 3 as an expression of ADU support, or at least silent acquiescence.

That was dumb, and I was wrong. As soon as I saw the now-infamous flyer, some simple political arithmetic began to sink in:

Some Belvidere “names” were far from cool with the ADU ordinance. As a consequence, the politically vulnerable would need to abandon their pro-ADU ideals or face a Reilly School auditorium full of outrage. Thus, three “Pro-ADU” councilors had to decide whether it was worth dying on the ADU hill:

Councilor Nuon: Needs to fight off two strong anti-ADU challengers to keep his at-large seat and is rumored to seek higher office. He reasoned that he would change his vote because the Council (of which he is a member) “didn’t do a good job” on the ordinance.

Mayor Chau: Has amassed about $40,000 in a campaign fund and could likely win District 6 with about $40. All signs point to him using that money to make a jump to a higher office as well. Mayor Chau stated that he was anticipating state action on the ADU issue and would rather punt to see what the state does first (more on that later).

Councilor Leahy: Has to live in Belvidere and probably doesn’t want his house to get egged. Councilor Leahy stated that, as a district councilor, he has a duty to advance the will of his constituents. A last-minute flurry of e-mails convinced him that his constituents don’t like the ordinance. (In my opinion, of the three that flipped, this is the only argument that passes the smell test).

When writing about the ADU debate in his July Op-Ed, Mayor Chau noted:

Unlike in the past when we have had these debates, the City Council is now in a unique position. District representation has given more people a seat at the table for these conversations, bringing more voices into the fold.

I read that as a proclamation that Councilors could get a little bolder in making policy without taking dictation from the usual power brokers. That sure looks pretty funny this morning. Belvidere can still flex – and when it does, you’d better fall in line or life can get difficult if you want to maintain a political career. In the end, it simply wasn’t worth it to Mayor Chau, Councilors Nuon and Leahy.

Thus, the Lowell ADU Ordinance is dead. If you’re celebrating, you may want to slow your roll. Just this morning, Gov. Healey unveiled a $4.1 billion housing bond bill. Among the features is a statewide ADU component:

Under the raft of policy initiatives in the bill, homeowners would be able to more easily build accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, also called “granny flats,” which are under 900 square feet, in single-family zoned districts in all communities.

This is what happens when local communities refuse to give an inch on housing creation!

3. The Rest

Let’s say it’s a sunny Wednesday morning. You’re a city employee…busy…likely underpaid. The Manager or Assistant Manager comes in, drops this on your desk and says you need to figure it out:

C. Yem – Req. City Mgr. Have The Appropriate Department Explore Ways To Harness The Power Of Artificial Information (AI) To Transform The City Operations.

Do you just start sobbing? Pack up your stuff and leave? Get philosophical?

[Bonus: If you succeed, you’ll be replaced by a machine and laid off!]

Also, I somehow missed it, but it looks like the city just released a couple of years worth of executive session minutes:




4 responses to “Council Meeting Recap: October 17, 2023”

  1. Mikaela Hondros-McCarthy says:

    Awesome recap as always. Your picture captured my exact reaction to that flyer lol how do you do it !

  2. El Guapo says:

    Here’s the upside… if the State passes an ADU ordinance, at least Lowell won’t have one that is worse for the residents than the state imposes.

    In the meantime, “in-law apartments” and “granny flats” are already allowed, as of right, so long as they are part of the main house and have access to and are accessible from within the main portion of the house (i.e. just not a separate address).

  3. Brian P Barry says:

    Ryan I feel compelled to comment. The ADU ordinance was not defeated because Belvedere flexed some muscle. This opposition was coordinated throughout all sections of the City. The flyer was drafted to raise awareness throughout town of what we regarded as poor public policy which had been falsely portrayed as in law apartments when in fact the proposal allowed for rentable ADU s. This policy would end single family zoning. The meeting at the Reilly sought to educate the community on the potential effects of the ordinance. All sections of the city were leafleted by people from each neighborhood and the Reilly meeting was attended by residents from across town. Once people were informed it became clear that the vast majority of residents were opposed. Citizens then educated their neighbors and people across the City then protested to their representatives. Government worked as it should. The people spoke and their representatives listened. That’s a good thing. I applaud the efforts of all involved on both sides of this issue.

  4. Ryan says:

    Over the course of this debate, the vast majority of those speaking in opposition – until very recently – were from Pawtucketville. There were also a handful from the upper Highlands. Those neighborhoods clearly didn’t have the political sway to scare off councilors in support of adopting the ordinance.

    Support for the ordinance was not in jeopardy until efforts spearheaded by 3 Belvidere residents, cumulating in a rally at a Belvidere school. This resulted in 3 councilors changing votes. To me, that’s a flex – and I don’t really think it’s a stretch to say so. I’m not saying you (or anyone else) is wrong to advocate for your position. As you said, this is healthy democracy. But I stand by my opinion.

    As to your substantive points – the ordinance was never guised as merely in-law apartments. Further the fact that they would be for rental purposes was always clearly stated [See “Purpose” Paragraph 1(b) “income”]. I can’t help but note that when you commented on my last post, you said that the Planning Board issued a negative recommendation “because” there was no family restriction. This is untrue. Thus,from where I sit, you yourself are guilty of “false portrayal” on the matter of “in laws.”

    Nevertheless, I remain committed to continue conversations on creating housing units with you. You have my # and I think I saw a flyer with your e-mail. Lol.

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