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Highland Avenue Zoning – Civil Discussion Is Needed

355 – 373 Highland Avenue Again On The Hot Seat

Is the Need For Business Or Residential?

By William Legault


The following definition is borrowed from Wikepedia.

“Zoning is the process of dividing land in a municipality into zones (e.g. residential, industrial) in which certain land uses are permitted or prohibited. In addition, the sizes, bulk, and placement of buildings may be regulated. The type of zone determines whether planning permission for a given development is granted. Zoning may specify a variety of outright and conditional uses of land. It may also indicate the size and dimensions of land area as well as the form and scale of buildings. These guidelines are set in order to guide urban growth and development.”

Zoning. Is it meant to be carved in stone, never to be changed? Or is it meant to be flexible in order to change with the needs of the times? Over the last two years this subject had led to some vitriolic discussions in the City Council Chambers. There have been times that councillors have embarrassed themselves and the body itself.

There are those who want to do this. There are there who want to do that. And there are those who want to do nothing. Tomorrow night the Salem City Council meets to again to discuss, or perhaps beat each other over the heads and shoulders, on the subject. This time it concerns the undeveloped, but now cleared parcel of land at 355-373 Highland Avenue. It will not be the first time at the city council rodeo for this particular plot of Salem dirt.

In 2016 there was proposal to build a large entertainment complex there. It would have included movie theaters, a restaurant, an arcade, bowling alleys, and private function space for parties. After much objection and argument the project died a little less than a year ago. As a councillor I supported this project despite the many objections because I considered it the best use of the space within the allowed zoning. We as a city long ago decided what Highland Avenue was to be. Now a new project has been proposed that will require a zoning change from business to residential.

Many of the objections to the entertainment complex were legitimate. Traffic of course, being primary. But the fact is, no matter what is built there, it will bring traffic. The only hope for mitigation of the volume of vehicles on Highland Avenue is the long talked about state improvements of the roadway. There is paving planned for 2022, and a larger $35 reconstruction planned for farther down the road that interestingly enough does not include any plans for “added capacity.” So despite what we build there, improvements in traffic signaling, more and improved entry and exit points to and from the businesses and streets, and better public transportation access will be the only answers to improving traffic flow.

Now the debate on this parcel will be about housing, and of course the traffic that it will bring. Considering how prominent a role housing played in our recent municipal election, it should be interesting to hear tomorrow nights discussion.

The argument made by some councillors in the past about zoning being a “legacy” left to us by our wise and far thinking government officials of the past is, and will always be specious at best. The zoning created in the past, was made with past conditions directly in mind and with conjecture as to what would be needed tomorrow. If  zoning written in the 1950s or 1960s is what is right for Salem, then we would be bowling or watching movies up on Highland Avenue tonight. We are not.  It was decided that the zoning does not not serve the best purpose for the neighborhood and the city. The land remains cleared but unused.

Zoning, is not meant to be forever. That is why it includes a Zoning Board of Appeals, and allows for planners and councillors to reconsider and rewrite as they see necessary. Times change, circumstances change, and needs change. What are the more important needs today?

Tomorrow night the councillors and the planners will meet again to discuss this matter of zoning. But this meeting is more than that. This is a chance for a group of councillors to show us that they can have a civil discussions on an important matter. It may be their last chance.

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