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Watertown City Council will revist Thompson Boulevard zoning change

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The Watertown City Council agreed Monday night to take a second look at the controversial zoning change that caused a torrent of criticism from people who believed city leaders were trying to regulate lifestyles and living arrangements.

The three council members — Roxanne M. Burns, Joseph M. Butler Jr. and Jeffrey M. Smith — said the city should revisit the so-called roommate law after Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham suggested amending the zoning again.

The three council members said the city should look at ways to improve the zoning change that they passed in a 3-2 vote in February.

“I think this morphed into something bigger than anyone ever thought,” Ms. Burns said, adding it began because council members “had a differing opinion” on the issue before it became such a controversy.

The issue first came up before the city’s Planning Board in January after a Thompson Boulevard homeowner, Deborah A. Cavallario, complained her neighbor was living with his fiancée and two friends in a single-family home in a Residential A district.

Ms. Burns said that zoning issues are “the most difficult to decide,” and their possible effects are sometimes not realized until later. Ms. Burns said some friends told her she was wrong in voting for it, even though they called the police a few weeks later to complain about some rowdy soldiers living together who were disrupting their residential neighborhood.

The three council members said they would like Planning Department staff to study the issue and then council members can discuss the recommendations before sending them to the Planning Board to reconsider. Mr. Butler also suggested changing some existing language referring to the make-up of families that he described as “outdated.”

The lengthy discussion Monday night surprised the mayor, who had expected just to introduce some legislation aimed at fixing the zoning change that he proposed at the March 18 meeting, he said.

To get through the controversy, the mayor said he wants to re-establish the sentence council members removed that allowed “no more than four transient roomers” and applied to “accessory uses in residential districts.” As a result of the change, no transient roomers are allowed to live in Residential A districts.

In addition to putting that language back in the city’s zoning, Mr. Graham suggested looking at another section pertaining to the definition of family. He has proposed keeping language that would allow “any number of individuals living together as a single housekeeping unit.” But he suggested removing the following language: “to distinguish it from a club, fraternity, or boardinghouse, not more than four members of a family shall be other than blood relatives.”

After the meeting, Mr. Graham said the issue should go directly to the Planning Board — without City Council involvement — for its reconsideration and then send it back to the council later. A public hearing could be scheduled in May or June.

Council members took up the so-called roommate law after the Planning Board approved it 6-1.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Butler have vehemently defended their vote, contending the media blew the issue out of proportion. They also argued they were trying to protect Residential A districts from boarding and rooming houses.

Mrs. Cavallario, 259 Thompson Blvd., objected to her neighbor’s living arrangement because her neighborhood, zoned Residential A, has only single-family houses. She had complained about the number of vehicles parked on Travis W. Hartman’s property. He recently married his fiancée, who was one of the unrelated people living in the house.

In other business, council members came up with a set of parameters for the 2013-14 budget in reaction to a draft budget that City Manager Sharon A. Addison presented last week.

She asked council members for some advice in preparing her proposed budget after starting last week with a $41,380,000 draft budget with a 34 percent tax hike.

Council members informally agreed on:

n Appropriating $1.6 million of fund balance into the financial document.

n Increasing the sales tax revenue projection by an additional $90,000, with growth from 3 percent to 3.5 percent.

n Increasing the property tax levy by 2 percent.

n Finding about $800,000 in cuts in the budget or using long-term debt to pay $200,000 for an existing pavilion at the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park or $150,000 to pay for the design of improvements of the Watertown Municipal Arena.

Ms. Addison, who was out of town Monday for a family emergency, will continue to work on the budget when she gets back to town. Council members will discuss her proposed budget after they receive her modifications.

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