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The Column: Signing the mayor's guest book

Aug 18, 2023

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren signs the mayor's guest book at City Hall on Aug. 7, 2023. Warren was at a ceremony during which the state delegation presented city leadership with a check for $21.4 million in federal funding for repairs to four Mill City bridges. From left, Lowell National Historical Park Superintendent Julie Galonska, state Rep. Rady Mom and Mayor Sokhary Chau. (Melanie Gilbert/Lowell Sun)

From left, Mayor Sokhary Chau, WCAP Moring Drive host Gerry Nutter, former Mayor William Samaras and WCAP Morning Drive host Casey Crane celebrate Nutter's one-year anniversary of hosting the show at the station's Market Street location in Downtown Lowell. (Courtesy Erastus Mwangi)

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey signed the Chapter 90 transportation infrastructure funding bill into law at a ceremony in Lowell's City Hall Aug. 4, 2023. After the ceremony, she and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll signed the mayor's guest book. (Courtesy Erastus Mwangi)

Hon. Joseph Ole Lenku, the regional governor of the county of Kajiado, Kenya, signs the mayoral guest book in Mayor Sokhary Chau's office during a visit to Lowell in July. (Courtesy Erastus Mwangi)

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey signs the mayor's guest book at City Hall on Aug. 7, 2023. Markey was at a ceremony during which the state delegation presented city leadership with a check for $21.4 million in federal funding for repairs to four Mill City bridges. (Courtesy Erastus Mwangi)

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey signed the Chapter 90 transportation infrastructure funding bill into law at a ceremony in Lowell's City Hall Aug. 4, 2023. After the ceremony, she and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll signed the mayor's guest book. (Courtesy Erastus Mwangi)

LAST MONTH, the Honorable Joseph Ole Lenku, regional governor of the county of Kajiado, Kenya, and his wife, First Lady Edna Lenku, made an impromptu stop in Lowell to meet Mayor Sokhary Chau and fellow Kenyan Erastus Mwangi.

Mwangi, the assistant to Chau, came to Lowell 10 years ago, and still has family in Kenya.

“The Kenyan community knows that I work for the mayor, and that’s how he reached out,” Mwangi said after Joseph Ole Lenku’s visit. “He wasn’t in Lowell on an official visit. He asked if he could meet with the mayor and meet me as well.”

Lowell is home to a sizable African community, including people from Kenya, Cameroon, Liberia, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, among many other countries on the continent. Of the more than 6,000 Africans living in Lowell, Mwangi estimates that at least 2,000 of them are from Kenya.

During the visit, the couple met City Manager Tom Golden, City Council members and Middlesex Community College President Phil Sisson. They toured City Hall and addressed a council meeting. Before he left, Gov. Lenku signed the mayoral guest book in Chau’s office.

A couple weeks later, another governor came a-calling. Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey came to Lowell Aug. 4 to sign the $375 million annual Chapter 90 conference committee infrastructure bill that will reimburse municipalities for maintenance on bridges and roads and authorize funding for transportation infrastructure grants.

Healey was joined by Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll. After the bill-signing ceremony in the Mayor’s Reception Room, Healey and Driscoll signed the mayor’s guest book.

The following week, Lowell was again host to high-level dignitaries, as U.S. Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren joined U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan at City Hall with a check for $21.4 million in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law federal funding for four Mill City bridges that span canals fed by the mighty Merrimack River.

Warren and Markey each added their “John Hancock” to the ledger.

They all continued a tradition that goes back to 1905, said Jennifer Myers, who was aide to Mayor Patrick Murphy 2012-2014, and is now a spokesperson for the Lowell Public Schools.

According to her Room 50 blog, the guest book includes the signatures of the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and Hollywood greats Alfred Hitchcock and Dorothy Lamour, as well as decades’ worth of the who’s who of Lowell and the region.

“I signed it the day Mayor Murphy’s term ended,” Myers wrote by text on Saturday.

One person who said he has not yet signed the historic ledger is Lowellian Gerry Nutter. The former School Committee member is WCAP’s Morning Drive host. Although Nutter has co-chaired the Saturday Morning Show with host Warren Shaw for many years, he started his own weekly gig last August, replacing longtime host Teddy Panos.

The station threw Nutter a one-year anniversary party on Tuesday, with the crowd chowing down on breakfast by ML Shaw’s Country Kitchen of Dracut, featuring eggs, bacon, sausage and home fries, as well as coffee from next-door business neighbor, Brew’d Awakening. In between bites, Nutter, ever the radioman, interviewed his guests.

Chau was in attendance, but not the guest book. One comes to the guest book; it does not come to you. For that, Nutter will have to trek on down to City Hall. Take your lucky pen, Mr. Nutter, and wear your Sunday best for a Sun photo. You’ll be joining a pantheon of notables who have marked its pages.

DRACUT’S ZONING Board of Appeals will have to juggle two controversial Chapter 40B applications for comprehensive permits almost simultaneously, starting Aug. 24.

That’s when the Zoning Board of Appeals is slated to open the Murphy’s Farm public hearing. If a comprehensive permit were approved for this project as submitted, it would add 300 four-bedroom apartments to the town’s housing stock.

That’s 1,200 bedrooms and, if one child occupied each of 900 bedrooms — assuming the other 300 bedrooms are used by parents — that would slam the Dracut school system, already short on classrooms. And the population would also strain the police, fire and public works departments.

The second project, Greenmont Commons, at 135 Greenmont Ave., is small by comparison — 28 three-bedroom townhouse units.

The proposed Murphy’s Farm development would be on 50 acres off Wheeler Street, near the Methuen town line. The proposed Greenmont Commons would be on two house lots, representing 2.45 acres.

Although the Greenmont Commons project is dwarfed by Murphy’s Farm, it is controversial in its own right. Residents are particularly concerned about the density of the housing: 28 units where a single-family home sits next to an empty lot.

ZBA meetings are likely to be busy through early 2024. The Greenmont Commons public hearing must close by the end of January and the Murphy’s Farm hearing by the end of February.

Because it seems apparent that the Selectmen’s Chambers at Town Hall will not accommodate the expected crowd, the Aug. 24 meeting has been moved to the Dracut High School auditorium on Lakeview Avenue.

The ZBA usually meets once a month, but that may switch to twice a month as the deadline to close each hearing approaches.

Stay tuned.

REPRESENTATIVES FROM 270 Billerica Road, a warehouse site in Chelmsford owned by a sub-company of DH Property Holdings, applied for amended special permits June 14 before the Planning Board. Part of that request included an aquifer protection permit.

But it turns out the applicant, allegedly, knew the site was contaminated with PFAS at the time and did not disclose it to the board.

At the Planning Board’s Wednesday meeting, members discussed the revelation, brought to light during liaison updates by associate member Joel Luna.

“They knew of the contamination at the very beginning of June, and it was not disclosed to the Planning Board, and it was not disclosed to the Conservation Commission, either,” Luna said. “It was a conservation commissioner who noticed that there were observation wells on the site and looked into it, and that’s when it came out that in fact the applicant’s licensed site professional had reported contamination on June 2.”

The licensed site professional, or LSP, is an engineer that cleans up contamination, Luna explained.

The discovery of PFAS must be reported within 72 hours, Luna said. The Conservation Commission is confident the applicant was aware of the issue because of a form filled out after the contamination was found — on that form, Luna said it confirmed the “potential responsible party” was notified.

Now, the Conservation Commission is concerned with the location of the contamination, increasing PFAS to the surrounding wetlands, mixing contaminated and noncontaminated soils and encountering contaminated groundwater during construction, Luna said.

Board member John Sousa reflected on the developer’s previously submitted plans, in light of the news.

“I think they had an ethical responsibility to notify this board because, if you remember the waythe (thing) was pitched to us, the amended plans, it was so that they didn’t want to truck in thousands of yards of soil,” Sousa said, “but now we know that may have been for another reason.”

Clerk Michael Raisbeck seemed to agree, as the company may have been instructed not to mix soils, but Luna disagreed, saying that could have been for financial or aesthetic reasons.

Potential actions for dealing with the PFAS will be submitted for peer review, Luna said.

“On one hand, it’s good that the matter is being addressed,” Luna said, “but on the other hand, I think that it’s a situation where they obtained a permit without divulging all of the relative information.”

Member Annita Tanini questioned whether the board would be able to revoke the permit, but Community Development Director Evan Belansky said he’d had to reach out to town counsel for their legal options. Tanini said the company should return to the board “to explain this.”

The Conservation Commission has yet to approve the developer’s requested modification. They’re now making changes to the stormwater management system, Luna said, but he also feels it necessary for representatives to come back.

Luna stressed he feels it important for the Planning Board to take part in the resolution, as “the Conservation Commission has a more limited jurisdiction on this property.”

BILLERICA’S SELECT Board took a look at updating the town’s debt stabilization policy Tuesday in anticipation of some major upcoming renovation and building projects, but some members of the board took issue with the somewhat abnormal timing of the meeting.

The board typically meets on Mondays at 7 p.m., but for this single-issue meeting they chose Tuesday at 5:45 p.m., for an issue that Select Board member Mike Rosa said was important enough that it should be discussed during a regularly scheduled meeting with public comment.

Town Manager John Curran was asking the board to raise the debt levy limit from $9,066,000, where it has sat since 2012, to $15 million between the next year and 2030. This is due to an anticipated “significant expansion of the capital plan,” according to an Aug. 2 memo from Curran to the board. That expansion, the memo said, is related to proposed projects like a new public works facility, new Council on Aging center, a new Recreation Center and water infrastructure work, among other projects.

“I just want to publicly voice my opposition to this meeting, Mr. Chairman,” Rosa said to Select Board Chair Michael Riley during the Aug. 8 meeting. “To have a meeting that deals with probably nine or more projects in town and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Riley then cut him off, with the two talking over each other before he said that the discussion was not about the projects themselves, but about the town’s debt stabilization policy in anticipation of those projects moving forward in the future.

Rosa said that regardless, undertaking what he thought of as an important policy change should have been done at a time and day that Billerica residents normally expect, rather than in the early evening when people may still be getting home from work and unable to participate in the meeting.

“As well as to do it on our National Night Out as another distraction, I would implore you to call this meeting off,” said Rosa, and suggested that they have the discussion during their regularly scheduled Aug. 14 meeting.

Curran then said that he wanted the debt stabilization discussion because the Aug. 14 meeting will have a discussion about the preliminary warrant for the fall Town Meeting coming up in October, which may include some of the projects for which the debt levy limit would be raised.

“I didn’t want to stack those two things on top of each other in the same meeting,” said Curran.

Another issue, Rosa later said, was that the meeting that night was limited to end at 7 p.m., which he said was not enough time for a discussion on raising the debt levy limit.

“We have barely discussed this,” said Rosa.

Board member Kim Conway said that investing money into these projects for the town is something that is “really overdue,” and that the board should trust Curran’s credibility.

“He is trying to be proactive. He is trying to go to Town Meeting and say, ‘These are the projects we are interested in, and this is how we are going to fund them,’” said Conway, adding that the Select Board’s vote on the debt levy limit is not a vote to approve any of the projects it would be used for.

Board member John Burrows said he was worried about raising taxes and rates on residents again, but that he understood the need for some of the projects.

“You’re putting the buck onto the seniors, and a lot of them aren’t CEOs, vice presidents, not a lot of them make a hundred grand a year,” said Burrows.

Board member Andrew Deslaurier clarified with Curran that raising the debt limit would “soften” any raise in the tax levy, rather than bringing a notable increase all at once.

When Deslaurier made a motion to approve the new financial policy, and Conway seconded it, Rosa then called for a point of order, as he said it was procedure to review these policy changes at one meeting and actually vote on it at the next meeting. Deslaurier responded by saying they reviewed it back in April when Curran first presented it to the board.

The new debt levy limit was passed 3-2, with Riley, Deslaurier and Conway voting in favor, and Rosa and Burrows voting against.

This week’s Column was prepared by reporters Melanie Gilbert in Lowell, Prudence Brighton in Dracut, Cameron Morsberger in Chelmsford, and Peter Currier in Billerica.

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