By Chris Bordelon
President, Somerton Civic Association
Last week’s article about the Quartett Club property cited an interview of Councilman Brian O’Neill, who didn’t attend Somerton Civic Association’s April 9 meeting, where the property was discussed. So that no one who read about that post-meeting interview develops mistaken impressions, I’m writing to clarify.
O’Neill enjoys a power known as “councilmanic privilege,” or “councilmanic prerogative,” to allow or block development of the Quartett property. The civic board’s interactions with O’Neill, including our meeting with him on March 6, as well as our interactions with the property owner and developer who were in contact with O’Neill’s staff, provided no basis to conclude that O’Neill desired any outcome other than development with houses.
In August 2015, O’Neill rejected an earlier proposal to develop part of the Quartett property at a meeting I attended as a civic board member. He said then that his “vision” for the property involved developing it all with houses and demolishing the 275-year-old main building. In December 2016, when the property was headed to sheriff’s sale, O’Neill did not respond to an email I sent to him suggesting that he act to have the property set aside for the community’s benefit.
Recently, O’Neill’s insistence on development of the entire property with houses and demolition of the main building led to the creation of two development plans by the developer and owner. Several weeks ago, the owner and developer told the civic’s board that O’Neill’s office had rejected their original proposal to build 31 houses on the disused part of the property only. That proposal would have left the historic building (where the owner, a caterer, has operations he said he wishes to continue) intact and a few acres of surrounding land undeveloped. But O’Neill’s office, we were told, insisted on the building’s demolition (thereby ending catering operations) and the development of the entire property. The owner and developer had thus produced a second plan to build 44 houses across the entire property and to demolish the building.
When the civic board related what it had heard about this to O’Neill at our March 6 meeting with him, he did not dispute it; rather, he reiterated that the entire property should be developed with houses and that the building should come down. Neighbors, he said, would probably prefer that. O’Neill did not express interest in preserving open space or the historic building, although his staff member in attendance suggested that a developer might be persuaded to leave only the very oldest part of the building standing while demolishing the rest for houses.
The civic board believed that the 31-house, partial development proposal would appeal more to civic members and to neighborhood residents generally than the 44-house plan for building demolition and full development. The owner and developer had expressed their willingness to proceed with either plan. So the board suggested to O’Neill that civic members could be asked which plan they preferred at April’s civic meeting after hearing from the owner and developer. The vote’s result could inform O’Neill’s decision as to how to exercise his councilmanic privilege.
O’Neill appeared to the board to accept this plan for a civic meeting vote posing a choice between the 31- and 44-house proposals. He didn’t rule out either proposal, and he never suggested that leaving the entire property as-is should be made a third choice.
Accordingly, the board included in the April 9 civic meeting agenda a proposed vote asking whether members preferred the 31-house, partial development proposal or the 44-house, full development and demolition proposal. The agenda was published two nights before the civic meeting, and O’Neill and a member of his staff received a copy. Neither expressed concern to the board about the proposed vote.
At the civic meeting, members voted 53-2 to express their preference for the 31-house, partial development plan over the 44-house, full development and demolition plan. The vote, the civic board emphasized, didn’t bind anyone. We acknowledged that there also existed support at the meeting for preserving the entire property and the building. But the board hadn’t been presented with that option. The fact remained that the property is privately owned and reportedly under contract to be sold to a developer, and O’Neill, whose support would be needed for any sustainable solution preserving the grounds and building, had told us he preferred a housing development covering the entire property.
In light of all this, it was surprising to read O’Neill’s description of his position in the Times last week, and his comment that, “There never should have been two options,” offered to members. I believe the civic board and members acted appropriately. I have requested another meeting between O’Neill and the civic board to discuss his intentions for the property and to offer suggestions. Refusing to allow a development isn’t the same as preserving open space or a historic building, if that is what O’Neill intends. Preservation would require a fair agreement with the property owner in which the government or an appropriate nonprofit organization obtained rights in the property for the public benefit. Unless and until terms agreeable to the owner and any government agencies or organizations that might become involved are reached, O’Neill’s decision postpones but does not prevent development, for it remains a Council member’s privilege to reverse course in the future. ••