Public comments now take priority at Cambridge City Council

CAMBRIDGE — One of the big changes in the new council format is the “Public Comment” at the head of the agenda, and the idea has caught on. You can make your plea or point early, and don’t have to wait a couple of hours to have your say. The primary advantage is, you can present your input on an agenda matter BEFORE the council acts on it. Mayor Victoria Jackson Stanley graciously invites public comment right at the top so your worthwhile ideas get weight in council’s deliberations.

On Monday night, resident Sharon Smith asked the commissioners to attempt getting Sun Trust Bank to reconsider the closing of its Cambridge bank. Ms. Smith outlined her case: loss of services for patrons and businesses, with the closest branch in Easton and an empty building as a visitor enters downtown Cambridge via the bridge. Tom Pugliese followed, urging the council to move forward on recycling. He advocates voluntary curbside recycling at a reasonable rate. Examining options for recycling was on the agenda later.

Approved permits went to Cambridge High School, Class of 1970 to hold a reunion at Great Marsh on June 17 from noon to dusk. The Rotary Club got its noise variance and permit for an oyster roast at Long Wharf near the fountain, on March 25, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy sought and got a letter of support for a grant application. The Conservancy is seeking $100,000 to assist in stabilizing the symbolic smoke stack at the Phillips Packing Company. There’s no request for city money.
On to ordinances; the city tightened the regulated use of banners and flags. At a previous council meeting, city planners showed photos of banner-less streets and most everyone approved. It was not a case-by-case decision so don’t look for the pretty pink flag at the Bay Country Shop. It has been outlawed in favor of a unified clean look instead of windblown banners like Nottingham Fair.
The infill development ordinances (1090 and 1091) of the last session were approved by the commissioners. Pat Escher, the city planner had explained that some lots did not qualify for development because they did not meet current requirements. Those lots once qualified just fine before current standards. Developers spoke for the loosening of the codes for infill development.

Commissioners approved the change with a condition that the new construction conform to the look of the existing houses.
On the industrial side, the council heard a zoning request to increase building height from 35 to 50 feet. The commissioners heard testimony that potential business investment was hindered by restrictive height, and the change to 50 feet would “spur development or redevelopment.” Ordinance 1093, the change, is now rewritten to 50 feet.

Next up, Sailwinds. It seems the development community is not eager to take on Sailwinds, the gorgeous piece of riverfront unique to Cambridge. City Manager Sandra Tripp Jones says there was no formal response to the overture for development sent out and now she suggests sending an REOI. (That means Request for Expressions of Interest.) An REOI requires a less intensive response on the part of a developer than the last approach which called for a more comprehensive proposal.

Sidewalks, repairs, and who pays produced a very lengthy discussion at this council session. Chances are, your sidewalks crack because of the cycle of freezing and melting of water, or tree roots, or a piano falling from the sky, Whatever. You didn’t cause it, but in almost every municipality in the United States, the homeowner is held responsible. It’s the law, but not readily enforced. Commissioner Steve Rideout wants to see improvement in the condition of sidewalks and the council is exploring the issue. Affordability is the biggest challenge since many elderly and low-income homeowners have other priorities. Are there ways to resolve the problem? Are cracked sidewalks presenting a clear and present danger in Cambridge? Further study for alternatives will be pursued.

Recycling issues, like paying for service, public access, and an examination of options for residents elicited many opinions and staff will do further exploration.

The Third Ward Blight Study Report that identified 953 structures as inadequate has been examined by staff and council. In order to apply for grant money for rehabilitation from Community Development funds, the city must prepare a plan for a “shovel ready” project to qualify.

In new business, the council heard a report of old business come to fruition. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Park will open March 11 with ceremony and important guests. The opening day plan has anticipated crowds and parking arrangements that include shuttles. A final reminder: Blackwater is also celebrating its Eagle Festival, another draw of visitors.

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