Debate arose at the Salem Planning Board meeting on Thursday night over a proposed 141-unit apartment complex on the site of the former Salem Oil and Grease factory in the Blubber Hollow Neighborhood.
The board and developer - MRM Project Management - are trying to turn the site near the Peabody border into the Legacy Park Apartments, but a handful of city councilors see the proposal as violating an ordinance they passed in 2009 that allows residential units to be constructed on commercial sites.
The board will meet again on Thursday, June 21, to discuss the issue further.
The site along the North River Canal between Grove Street, Harmony Grove Road and Beaver Street is designated under city zoning laws as a business park zone. The City Council ordinance allow residences as part of Planned Urban Developments (PUD) - developments that have the flexibility to be placed in different city zones through a special permit - to be built in business park zones under the stipulation that no more than 50 percent of the land be residential.
At a glance, the current plan - which includes three new apartment buildings, and the conversion of the defunct factory's office at 60 Grove Street into commercial space - appears to violate the 50 percent compromise that allowed the ordinance to pass City Council vote in 2009 after being shot down once previously.
"Somebody has to figure out what percentage this is residential because it's paramount in the rules," said Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent. "I can't see how this isn't 80 percent residential."
The crux of the complicated issue is taxes. The residential tax rate in Salem is $12 per $1,000 of valuation, and the commercial rate is $29 per $1,000 of valuation. In short, the city makes more money from commercial taxes.
A good example of the PUD compromise in action is the Pickering Wharf area of downtown Salem, with shops and restaurants on the ground floor of the buildings, and condos above.
"Paramount should be the rules of the business park," Sargent said. "It should be 50 percent maximum residential, and the other 50 percent without a doubt to be used or possibly for future use as a business park zone paying business park taxes."
As of yet the city's legal department has not brought up any zoning issues with the plan for the proposed Legacy Park Apartments site, and the Planning Board as a whole seems unsure of how the 50 percent mark is delineated.
"It has been an issue all along, we have been discussing this from the very beginning," said Planning Board Member Helen Sides. "It is something that we're all very aware of."
This is the first time a PUD application like this has come before the Planning Board. Sargent cites not only a diminishing tax base in the city as a need to preserve commercial sites for commercial use in the city, but also precedence for future building applications in the city.
"The developer wants to build the project, the city wants to see this thing get built, we don't want to see vacant land there," Ward 4 Councilor Jerry Ryan said. "We want to make sure we do it right because if we don't, down the road it's going to become precedent, and it's just going to snowball. I think it's a big issue and it needs to be determined what the 50 percent is."