O'Neill Funeral Home rezoning permits larger parking lot

O'Neill Funeral Home rezoning permits larger parking lot

CUMBERLAND - Town leaders, who regularly cite Cumberland's "business-friendly" rebirth, agreed last week to rezone the O'Neill Funeral Home property to Commercial-II within the residential neighborhood of New Clark Road on Mendon Road.

The move allows funeral home owner John O'Neill to enlarge his parking lot by another 65 spaces, for a total of about 100 spaces. Without the zone change, O'Neill was barred from expanding his grandfathered non-conforming property that predates the town's 1953 zoning laws.

Town Council members heard testimony from the applicant's attorney, Michael Kelly, and an engineer, as well as opposing neighbors for two and one-half hours last Wednesday, April 16, before voting 5-2 in favor, with Councilors Art Lambi and Manny DaCosta opposed.

The change puts O'Neill on par with J.J. Duffy Funeral Home, also on Mendon Road, which has an 81-space lot, and Bellows Funeral Chapel, in Lincoln, with 92 spaces, according to the engineer's figures.

O'Neill told residents he has room for two wakes or funerals at a time.

In voting against the rezone, Councilor Lambi said that while O'Neill "run(s) a top-notch business," there were "financial consequences" to purchasing a business with the 35-space parking lot in a residential zone that he should have considered.

"I have a lot of concerns with traffic in and out of your new parking lot," he said, adding, the towns' Comprehensive Plan calls on officials to "maintain and protect community and neighborhood quality and values."

But members of the Planning Board also quoted the Comprehensive Plan in recommending for it.

They noted the plan "calls for a the promotion of diverse businesses in the town as a well as concentration of commercial zones in areas properly served by transportation and other infrastructure."

They noted, "The comprehensive land use map designates the area along the subject portion of the Mendon Road corridor as medium and high density residential with nodes of commercial development."

Favoring the change were both Fire Chief Kenneth Finlay and Police Chief John Desmarais, who said cars parked along Mendon and New Clark roads as well as Paradise Lane were a safety hazard.

Traffic Officer Alan Crowe appeared in person to advocate for corralling cars on site rather than side streets.

Several councilors later said it was the traffic safety issues that prompted their "yes" votes even though some residents contended that overflow parking was happening only four or five times a year.

According to the plan, the funeral home building and two more acres were zoned for Commercial II while another four acres or so was left as a second lot zoned for residential.

Neighborhood objections to the rezone began with the loss of a wooded back drop to their back yards, prompting Higgins to note that a landowner has a right to develop his or her land.

Others expressed worry over added drainage issues, increased traffic, light pollution, security loitering and vandalism in the 350-foot parking lot they described as "longer than a football field."

O'Neill is pledging to shield back yards along New Clark Road with fencing and landscaping that blocks the parking lot, while adjusting lights so they don't shine toward the homes.

An engineer described a drainage system that he says will avoid runoff from the land in this area where the water table is high and many residents are using sump pumps in their basements.

Walter Burke, a member of the Cumberland Conservation Commission and director of Parks & Recreation in Bristol, raised strong doubts about the engineer's drainage plan.

Councilors imposed some restrictions on future Commerical-2 uses at the site. While not restricting future uses to only the applicant's proposal, as they often do, councilors provided a list of other permissible businesses, should O'Neill later sell.

They include medical or dental offices, service organizations, financial, insurance and real estate service, and professional services.

Council action immediately kicked off complaints from neighbors about the way the hearing was handled by Town Council President Jim Higgins.

Several walking out of the hall at 11:30 p.m. said he was biased and "condescending" toward the residents.

Jason Augustyn, 34 New Clark Road, said in an email to The Breeze the next day: "It was clear from the outset that he had no interest in hearing our concerns, yet gave Mr. O'Neill's attorney all of the latitude and time in the world to make his case."

He later told Higgins in an email, "You should be ashamed of yourself for the arrogance you showed towards the residents and voters of this town at last night's council meeting. I expected a lot of things last night, but could never have anticipated being attacked and condescended to by one of my elected officials. You are an at-large member of the council. Perhaps you need to be reminded that you represent the entire town. As such, I would expect you to understand that radical zoning changes and the destruction of natural habitat for a football-field sized parking lot are issues that many in this town find plain wrong. You put the private financial interest of one man above the integrity an entire neighborhood.

"You claimed not to have taken a political donation in three years. I don't believe that, and have been around the block enough to know a back room deal when I see one." He added, "I can guarantee that my neighbors and I will remember your disgusting display and the acquiescence of our council come November."

Higgins shared with The Breeze his emailed response to Augustyn. "I'm sorry you feel I wasn't objective. I try to look at every issue that comes before me with a clean slate. Unfortunately, I am not swayed by the political ramifications, and your threats of political payback at the polls are not concerning to me and actually quite insulting. I don't serve to win votes, I do it to do what I think is best for the town. Unlike some who seem to sway with the political winds.

"I'm also not gonna vote pro or con on an issue based on a mob coming out opposed. In fact when some of you people came and said 'I have 100's of signatures against' and 'the people have spoken it's us against him and that's it' that turned me off completely. I examine the evidence and the pros and cons and make a decision," he said in part.

Animosity even rose to the level of accusations of back-room payoffs with one resident pointing to a campaign finance report that showed $500 donated to the Mayor Daniel McKee campaign in 2013 and $250 donated by O'Neill to Town Council member Bill Murray two weeks earlier, on March 31. McKee, who was absent from the meeting, is waging a state campaign for lieutenant governor while Murray is running to fill the mayor's seat.