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Monday, December 4, 2023

The Column: Giving thanks in Lowell

THANKSGIVING IS a beautiful compound word, which is a word formed of two or more words that are grouped to form a new word with a new meaning.

The holiday this name honors is just four days away, but today we can honor the people and parts in the city of Lowell for whom we are giving thanks.

• The nonprofits and advocacy agencies: They meet the needs of the most vulnerable community members with love and compassion.

First responders: Under their collective efforts, the residents of this city sleep better at night.

Teachers: Building the next generation, from the ground up day after day and year after year.

• Michael Gallagher: His political salons keep Lowell on the radar of the commonwealth’s movers and shakers.

Richard Howe: From cemetery walks to deeds and records, no stone is left unturned as Howe saves and shares Lowell’s storied history.

• City Councilor John Drinkwater: He leaves office with his head held high, having fought relentlessly and passionately for accessory dwelling units in a city that is desperately hurting for enough housing.

• WCAP host Gerry Nutter: For providing his favorite Sun reporter a Friday morning platform for more than a year to talk about her favorite subject — the people of Lowell.

• The public: Who have the courage to speak up during public hearings on issues that they care about in the city that they love.

• The volunteers: Who unselfishly staff the many events that create a vibrant and welcoming city for all — from the Lowell Folk Festival, the Southeast Asian Water Festival, Winterfest, City of Lights and so many other gatherings and festivals.

• The committees and commissions: This is a special breed of the city’s quasi-volunteer workforce who do yeoman’s work to represent the many needs and interests of Lowell’s present and future residents. These folks sit on historic and library boards, health, parks, homeless, veterans, sustainability and so many other municipal bodies and they don’t always get the thanks they deserve.

• The voters: All 7,500 of them who came out to vote in this month’s election.

The candidates: Running for office is both an act of faith and fortitude. The city is strengthened by all who step forward to put their names on the ballot.

The migrants: Who like all the immigrants who came before them will enrich the city with their presence.

• Retail workers: All the people who will work this holiday staffing the gas stations, the grocery stores, the hospitals so the rest of us can enjoy our turkey, stuffing and pie.

• News outlets: The news never takes a holiday. Here’s to all the people who staff the paper and the presses to bring stories to the reader every day of the year.

And to all the other people who make Lowell a happy, thankful and giving place.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Time is on whose side?

MURPHY’S FARM is “a big project and a lot of engineering work needs to be done,” developer Kevin O’Brien told The Sun after obtaining a new extension to his timeline for a comprehensive permit from Dracut’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

A continuation of the public hearing on Murphy’s Farm, the proposed 300 four-bedroom apartment project in East Dracut, was on the ZBA agenda for Nov. 16. But that was canceled. The ZBA notice canceling the meeting did not give a reason.

The engineering work now underway includes updates to water and sewer design plans. The existing plans were developed as part of previous proposals for use of the land, O’Brien said.

O’Brien received a 30-day extension to his timeline because of these ongoing activities. And, at the Oct. 19 ZBA meeting, he requested and received a 60-day extension because of delays in developing detailed design specifications.

These extensions means it will be at least May before the board must vote to approve or deny a comprehensive permit. Timelines are set in the state’s now 54-year-old Chapter 40B law, part of which addresses the state’s continuing — some would say critical — need for affordable housing.

The hearing is scheduled to resume on Dec. 21. But opponents of the project are pushing back against that date because it is so close to Christmas.

The delays are likely to strain the patience of neighbors concerned about the impacts a development of this size — with 1,200 bedrooms — will have on schools, public safety and traffic.

But Chapter 40B favors regional housing needs over local concerns, giving the ZBA little room to deny requests to extend the timeline.

The Murphy’s Farm project is further complicated by its location — 50 acres between Wheeler Street and Wheeler Road — which includes a small piece of land in Methuen. And Wheeler Street is divided up the middle between Dracut and Methuen. Thus, Methuen may have a voice in the future of the development.

O’Brien and his attorney have made one appearance already before the Methuen ZBA and are scheduled to make another appearance on Nov. 28. Right now, the developer is uncertain about that meeting.

Cannabis retailers vying for one last license

AFTER THE Tewksbury Select Board handed out two retail cannabis licenses to two applicants earlier this year, two new applications will be considered for the final available retail cannabis license in town.

A community outreach meeting was held Oct. 5 by Cannafords Inc., a retail cannabis business that was part of the original application pool of eight businesses considered by the Select Board for three total licenses. Only two of the eight at the time received enough votes by the board to be granted a license: Lazy River Products and Smyth Cannabis.

Cannafords is applying to put a dispensary at the same location they originally sought at 1625 Main St.

Another applicant, Route 133 Cannabis, LLC, was not part of the original pool of applicants. Route 133 Cannabis will hold a community outreach meeting Nov. 21 at 6 p.m. at the Hilton-Garden Inn at 4 Highwood Drive, Tewksbury, where they will pitch a location at 1625 Andover St., along Route 133 near the border with Andover, which currently does not permit recreational cannabis dispensaries in town.

A quiet change in policy

WHILE CITIES and towns in Massachusetts grapple with last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shurtleff v. Boston, Wilmington managed to change their flag policy without any fuss, contrary to some other nearby communities of note.

During the Nov. 13 Wilmington Select Board meeting, the board voted unanimously to change the town’s flag policy to only allow the American flag, Massachusetts state flag, Wilmington town flag, the POW/MIA flag, the flags of the various branches of the U.S. military, the Tree City USA. flag and the Department of Public Works flag.

This comes after towns like Billerica debated over the free speech implications of limiting flags on town poles or allowing some to fly but not others. In Billerica’s case the issue culminated with a group getting the Billerica Select Board to vote 4-1 to allow a “pro-life” flag to fly on the town pole, after some pushback by members of the board and a lengthy debate during their Sept. 11 meeting. After approving the pro-life flag, the Billerica Select Board voted to implement a similar policy to what Wilmington has now implemented going forward.

In a more recent example, North Andover’s Select Board voted to raise the Palestinian flag on the town common until Dec. 7, amid the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip, and immediately after voted to implement a similar policy to Wilmington and Billerica for any flag requests that follow.

Moulton lays out views on Israel-Hamas war

SPEAKING OF Gaza, Congressman Seth Moulton turned his focus Monday to global conflicts that he said directly affect the country’s national security, including a path forward for the Israel-Hamas war.

The conflict, which has claimed the lives of thousands of Israeli and Palestinian civilians since the terrorist group invaded southern Israel last month, “probably” would not have erupted had embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — whom Moulton described as a “total disaster” — not been in office, Moulton said.

Moulton reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist and denounced terrorism, as he also mapped out his thoughts for expanded humanitarian relief to Palestinians and the release of about 250 Israeli hostages in Gaza. He also rejected the mounting calls for a ceasefire as Netanyahu and Israeli forces look to root out Hamas, whose militants killed about 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7.

“A ceasefire is something the Israelis will never agree to, but even if they did, Hamas will use it to their advantage to regroup and resupply, which misses the whole point,” Moulton, who represents the state’s 6th Congressional District, said during a Nov. 13 New England Council event at the Hampshire House. “Fundamentally, I think what’s needed is something much more specific, which is a civilian evacuation, both of the hostages through negotiation and innocent Palestinians through a surge of aid. In addition to providing safe borders and safe harbor for fleeing civilians, humanitarian aid must be a continuous and integral part of Israel’s military operation.”

Moulton, a Marine veteran who served four tours in Iraq and sits on the House Armed Services Committee, implored Israel to articulate its “end game” for the war as he lamented the deaths of Palestinian and Israeli children.

Asked during the event’s Q&A if Netanyahu should be removed from his position, Moulton said, “I’m not part of Israel’s democracy to determine who its leaders should be, but I think that, I mean, anybody with two cents know that Netanyahu is a total disaster and we probably wouldn’t even be in this conflict if he hadn’t been there.”

Pivoting to Washington’s political landscape after he recapped other conflicts like the war in Ukraine, Moulton drew laughter as he quipped, “The good news is we have a high-functioning Congress to sort it all out.”

While U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson last weekend unveiled a two-step plan that ultimately helped to avert a government shutdown — at least until after the holidays — Moulton criticized the Louisiana Republican’s lack of experience that he said has stymied Congress from passing spending bills.

“We were last in Washington Thursday [Nov. 9], late morning, where he pulled the bill about two minutes before it was to be voted on because he realized he didn’t have the votes,” Moulton said of a transportation appropriations bill. “So I expect that chaos to continue this week. His proposal, for what he called a laddered continuing resolution where different agencies get shut down at different points, is essentially replacing one government shutdown with 12. I’m not sure that’s a wise approach for someone who can’t even seem to handle one.”

While Democrats plan to stay engaged in negotiations with Republicans, Moulton signaled the longer-term solution is for Democrats to regain control of the House.

“It’s very frustrating for those of us who want to work across the aisle, for those of us with strong bipartisan records, as I’m proud to say that I have,” Moulton said, as he invoked “one side” that refuses to negotiate.

The Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war and being led by an “indicted criminal,” Moulton added. But Democrats are at risk of losing the 2024 presidential election, he said.

Recent polling showed former President Donald Trump leading President Joe Biden in battleground states.

“If you look at the polls, I mean Democrats have no excuse for not cleaning up,” he said. “And so if you’re a Democrat here today, I have to tell you, we got to look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘What the hell are we doing wrong that we can’t absolutely clean up across the board?’ ”

Moulton added: “We might very well lose the presidential election if the current polls are to be believed, and I don’t see any reason not to, so we got some real problems.”

Biden’s approval rating fell to 39% in a poll released earlier this month, marking its lowest measure since April, according to Reuters. A separate poll last month pegged Biden’s overall approval rating at 37%, and his rating among Democrats was 75%, which Gallup said was “the worst reading of his presidency from his own party.”

Moulton said he recently enlisted a former advertising executive to write a paper on what Democrats need to be doing differently, including touting Biden’s legislative successes. Without divulging details, Moulton said he had “some very specific ideas” about what Democrats are doing wrong and how to change that.

“The president is just not out there selling as much as I think he should, and you know that is what it is, but it’s a problem for us. It’s even more remarkable when you consider how productive this president has been in passing legislation when you consider the chaos that we’re dealing with in the House now,” Moulton said. “He’s had a remarkably steep uphill climb to get anything passed.”

This week’s Column was prepared by reporters Melanie Gilbert in Lowell, Prudence Brighton in Dracut, Peter Currier in Tewksbury and Wilmington, and State House News Service’s Alison Kuznitz on U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton.

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