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Controversial Watertown zoning law could become campaign issue

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Debate over what to do about the controversial ordinance pertaining to roommates could end up playing a role in this year’s election season.

The city Planning Board agreed Tuesday to recommend a series of amendments to the zoning law that brought accusations the city officials were trying to regulate lifestyles and living arrangements.

But it could take weeks for the Watertown City Council to figure out how it wants to revisit the legislation it passed back in February.

No vote is expected when the council meets Monday night, although a report outlining the Planning Board’s recommendations will be presented then, said Kenneth A. Mix, the city’s planning and community development coordinator.

Depending on what direction the council takes, the controversy could continue into the days leading up to the City Council primary on Sept. 10 and possibly linger into the weeks before the Nov. 5 election, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said.

According to Mr. Mix, Aug. 5 would be the earliest the council could vote on what to do. But it could be early or late September before the issue is resolved, he said.

With six candidates facing off in the primary, the issue could have an impact on the race, the mayor said.

“I think it’s a toxic issue, and the smart thing I would do is to refrain from commenting about it,” he said.

Incumbents Teresa R. Macaluso and Jeffrey M. Smith said they are not so sure what role the issue will have in their campaigns.

“It’s just one issue,” Ms. Macaluso said.

The issue first came before the council in January, after a Thompson Boulevard resident complained that her neighbor was living with his fiancee and two friends. The neighborhood is made up of single-family houses and is zoned as a Residential A district.

In February, Ms. Macaluso voted against the zoning change that caused a political uproar and spurred residents to pack council meetings. Mr. Smith supported the change, saying the so-called roommate law had nothing to with lifestyles but protected Residential A districts from ending up with boarding and rooming houses.

“I don’t see it as a campaign issue,” Mr. Smith said.

He said he still is convinced that the issue was blown out of proportion, and that it dealt with not allowing nontransient roomers — language eliminated from the zoning ordinance — to live in Residential A districts. If the challengers want to bring it up, he is ready to defend his decision, he said.

On Friday, challenger Jasmine W. Borreggine said some voters have told her they did not like how council members handled the ordinance. She said she expects it to become “a big issue” during the primary campaign, but she said she is all for protecting Residential A neighborhoods.

“But that was poorly crafted legislation,” she said, adding she believes the city does not have the right to decide who lives in a resident’s house.

When he announced his candidacy in May, challenger Cody J. Horbacz said the zoning change is partly what spurred him to get involved in the race. Mr. Horbacz and two other candidates, Stephen A. Jennings and Rodney J. LaFave, could not be reached for comment.

Council members have a few options they can take, Mr. Mix said. They could consider the Planning Board recommendation that deals with the definition of what makes up a family — broadening it to basically any group of people who live and cook together in a household. It also would differentiate between boarding houses and family dwellings.

It could be weeks before new legislation can be drawn up from the Planning Board’s version of the zoning ordinance, Mr. Mix said.

Mayor Graham and Councilwoman Macaluso have their own ideas. They suggest putting the nontransient phrase back into the ordinance and reconsidering the section pertaining to the definition of family.

No matter what council members eventually vote on, the issue still must go to the Jefferson County Planning Board for review before the council takes any action. That won’t happen until later this month or in August. A public hearing also must be scheduled for August or September. A vote could happen sometime that month, Mr. Mix said.

Perhaps more important, the council must come to some kind of agreement on what to do. It will take three votes to do anything, Mr. Mix said. If the council doesn’t come to an agreement, the zoning change may remain as is, he said.

And that could cause another public relations mess for the city.

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