“HUNDREDS OF wise men cannot make the world a heaven, but one idiot is enough to turn it into a hell.”
Pakistani writer Raheel Farooq could have been describing the hell that Alaina and Doug Brackett, owners of the Purple Carrot Bread Company on downtown’s Merrimack Street, have contended with for the past year.
Brackett described an intense and unrelenting pattern of harassment of her person and her business from four vagrant men, one of whom, she said, has 32 “no trespass” orders filed against him.
These are people who she claimed decline social services such as transitional housing, who prefer to live on the street, suffer from mental and behavioral issues, and are disrupting her business with severely aberrant behavior including public urination and defecation in the doorway of her business.
She told the council at last week’s meeting that what was needed to solve the problem was to find a way to work together as a community.
“The only way this could possibly change is if we all come together,” Brackett pleaded. “It’s not City Hall’s job to fix this problem. It’s not my job to fix this problem. It’s not the police’s job to fix this problem. It’s our job as a community to find a way to deal with this.”
Councilor Wayne Jenness agreed, and offered that the problem was not unique to the café, saying that he had heard from other businesses that were similarly stressed with these issues.
He cautioned that “this is not a problem we can police our way out of” and suggested to City Manager Tom Golden that “it’s time to refocus the Hunger and Homeless Commission. We need to get everyone reappointed and get that running again. I look forward to a report on figuring out what next steps we can take to address this.”
According to the city’s website, the Commission last met Dec. 2, 2020, and the terms of all 15 members expired in 2020 and 2021.
Golden told the council that “we have meetings once a week in regards to homelessness. It’s something we’re taking extremely seriously. We are this close to a homeless coordinator coming on board. That has taken obviously some time. We’re trying to set a new standard without crossing any lines. That’s a difficult challenge.”
Interim Superintendent of Police Barry Golner addressed the council confirming that the police were well aware of the problem, and had stopped up foot patrols in the area. But he said arrests weren’t the answer when the courts don’t have a process to deal with the kind of offenses the men harassing the cafe and other businesses are charged with committing.
“There’s a whole district court that’s called a mental health court, which is voluntary,” Golner explained. “If we do arrest the individuals, they have to voluntarily go into the program, they can’t be forced into a program in which the court would help them get services.” In lieu of help, they end up back on the street, and right back in front of the Purple Carrot and other businesses.
Golden also spoke to the need to get the judicial system onsides with the other community stakeholders in approaching solutions to the problem.
“I spoke briefly with one of the justices over there a few weeks back,” Golden said. “This justice is very familiar with the area, lives in the city, and is willing to try and help. It’s not an easy situation, but it’s being taken seriously. We hear the folks.”
City Solicitor Christine O’Connor offered an opinion that “these are not issues that can completely be solved” and may in fact only be made “into a more tolerable situation.” She did not, however, offer an opinion on how to make public defecation into a more tolerable situation.
In her almost 10-minute speech before the council, Brackett heartbreakingly described how “sometimes, I’m terrified. When a six-foot man comes into your store, and he clearly is not on this planet, and he’s screaming in your dining room, I ask them to leave, and they come at me. I don’t have a prayer. His arm length is twice my reach. I’m not going to be able to grapple with him.”
Waiting for commissions or hearings to take place might be too late for this business, whose absence will exacerbate an already ghost-town atmosphere along Merrimack Street. Numerous businesses closed in the wake of prolonged pandemic shutdowns, which is when the aggressive panhandling and vagrancy started, Brackett said.
One bright spot — depending on how you look at it — is that same night the council approved the request by the Cultural Affairs and Special Events Office to hire an assistant director for communications and marketing “to promote the City of Lowell to the Greater Lowell region, as well as to Greater Boston and New England.”
Indeed, there’s “a lot to like about Lowell,” but defecating in doorways, and 6-foot men screaming at women, are most definitely not two of them. Any city-generated marketing campaign is going to lose the word-of-mouth public relations battle.
“I’m exhausted,” Brackett said in closing. “I need someone to step in.”
Unhealthy situation in Dracut
Dracut’s Zoning Bylaw Review Committee has an attendance problem, and it also has a division among the Board of Selectmen to deal with. Some selectmen are skeptical that members of the Board of Health don’t have time to discuss zoning issues, even though their role has little to do with zoning.
Members of the zoning review committee must include a representative from the Board of Health, but apparently no one on the three-member board can make the required time commitment. So no one from the health board has attended a meeting.
Selectman Heather Santiago-Hutchings has a plan to fix that. She represents the selectmen on the Zoning Bylaw Review Committee, and she submitted a proposal to fellow board members to replace the health board representative with someone who served on the now-defunct Master Plan Committee.
“This is a good opportunity to put someone from the Master Plan Committee on the zoning review committee. It would be helpful to get their input,” she said.
Putting a former member of the Master Plan Committee on the zoning review committee seemed a natural fit to Santiago-Hutchings. Perhaps, that is because the committee’s final report included a vision for Dracut’s future, which necessarily referenced land use and zoning bylaw issues.
The zoning review committee’s purpose is “to help improve and implement land use policies and provide a better guide for future growth and change. The updated bylaw will emphasize Dracut’s unique character and help ensure that development and redevelopment meet the town’s expectations for quality place-making.’’
Santiago-Hutchings believes a member of the now-defunct committee would provide content expertise that a health board member could not, even if they wanted to.
“Not so fast,” seemed to be Selectman Joe DiRocco’s response to the plan. While those were not his exact words, his message was to delay any action until the next meeting.
That’s despite Alison Manugian, community development director, explaining she had spoken to the three health board members who confirmed they could not make the time commitment to the zoning effort. And Health Director Dave Ouellette told her he could serve in an advisory, non-voting role only. The Health Department does not have a strong interest in zoning issues, Oullette also told her.
Manugian’s reassurance that she had spoken to the health board members met with some hostility from DiRocco.
“I don’t know that. ” he sputtered, meaning health board members not wanting to serve on the bylaw review board. Selectmen should talk to the health board members and “see why they can’t do it. Maybe we can help them with it,” he said, sounding like a human resources specialist.
“They’ve been there 30 or 40 years and we owe them that,” DiRocco fumed.
Perhaps, a silent and unseen player in the drama was Phil Thibault, a man who has run against DiRocco in the past. In a nasty rematch between the two in 2021, Thibault came within 134 votes of DiRocco, a long-time member of the board.
Thibault chaired the Master Plan Committee when it made its final report to the town in 2020.
DiRocco demanded to know if Santiago-Hutchings had anyone in mind to join the zoning review committee.
“I can think of five people I’d love to have on that committee,” she retorted.
In the end, the board voted to continue the discussion until its next meeting. In the meantime, some unnamed (as of Tuesday night) selectmen will talk to the three members of the Board of Health to determine whether they really don’t have time to talk about zoning bylaws.
Dzineku squashes write-in rumors
TWO-HUNDRED thirty-one votes prevented Democratic primary candidate Zoe Dzineku from beating out former Lowell City Mayor Rodney Elliott in the 16th Middlesex District state representative race earlier this month.
Dzineku mounted a fierce campaign, receiving endorsements from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Solidarity Lowell, the Massachusetts Sierra Club, Reproductive Equity Now and several others. She was the more progressive of the two Democrats, singling her out as a symbol for change in the district and an outsider who has never held a leadership position in local politics.
The Centralville resident had momentum and drive, seeking advice from her former boss, state Sen. Ed Kennedy, whom she worked for in district constituent services. Through her work in Kennedy’s office, Dzineku got to better know the people of Lowell in a policy context, deciding to seek out state office to make a bigger difference.
When the polls closed Sept. 6, it seemed somewhat clear that Elliott had the edge over Dzineku, and as the night went on the polling numbers poured in, it was evident that Elliott had succeeded. While Dzineku took North Chelmsford and the Westlands, it wasn’t enough.
That very night, Dzineku said several friends, obviously disappointed with the results, encouraged her to stage a write-in campaign.
Her name wouldn’t be on the ballot, but she would continue to campaign for voters to write her name in the blank space, maybe to prevent Elliott from a blow-out win against Republican candidate and political newcomer Karla Miller.
Rumors of the effort swirled as Kennedy confirmed that Dzineku would not be returning to his office and officially resigned last week. He had left the position open for her, in the event she lost the election and decided to return.
“He was disappointed,” Dzineku said of Kennedy. “He said I was a really great hire and he wishes me luck.”
Kennedy told The Sun that Dzineku is instead “pursuing other business opportunities,” which Dzineku confirmed — her health care employment agency, Rosebud Staffing, has been “dormant” for nearly a year because of the race, she said.
Dzineku said she is considering expanding the company’s reach to community members “that actually need employment,” such as formerly incarcerated people, high school graduates and others without a clearly defined skillset.
At this stage, Dzineku said she is “rethinking the business model.”
Since the election, however, Dzineku said she has received several different offers and has multiple appointments, but nothing is set in stone just yet.
Also in the weeks following the race, friends, family and locals asked Dzineku to keep running for state office, even if she wasn’t listed on the ballot. But Dzineku extinguished those whispers Friday.
“I do not anticipate doing that,” Dzineku said of staging a write-in campaign. “More than one person has actually reached out and said, ‘Have you thought about this?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to look like a sore loser here.’”
Though some may be disappointed by Dzineku’s departure from the race, she said she will still be a friendly face in Lowell and beyond.
“I’m going to continue to work in the community. I’m going to continue to be visible,” she said. “And I don’t think this was my last campaign.”
Side note: the state representative primary in the 18th Middlesex District also saw a young, driven hopeful, Tara Hong, come extremely close to knocking out older incumbent Rep. Rady Mom. Unofficial results had Hong down 68 votes, but after the official results were released Sept. 13, just 56 votes divided them.
Despite the close call, Hong — just like Dzineku — does not plan on challenging the results or continuing to campaign.
Chelmsford construction proposal draws strong ire from residents
LUKE FOUGERE can’t catch a break.
The landscaper returned to the Chelmsford Planning Board Sept. 14 to defend his proposal to build a 40-by-60 foot detached garage with a 16-by-60 overhang roof at 150-152 Dalton Road. The construction would require a special permit, as it is an accessory structure that exceeds 900 square feet, according to the board’s agenda.
The barn would be used for “shop/storage,” according to the project application, and would be residential as well as commercial. The building would replace old ones currently on the 1.66-acre property.
“All the buildings there are decrepit, they’re barely dry at best,” Fougere said. “They might have a little bit of plumbing and a little bit of electricity and lighting, but that’s pretty much it.”
Fougere said nothing should prevent the board from approving the project, as he has “meet or beat all of the constraints” in his proposal to take down four buildings he hopes to replace with the barn.
“I just really need a new building,” he said. “This is the size we chose, that I decided to make, based on the calculations with the property surveyor and my contractor based on what we are legally allowed to do, and we are actually still under that.”
This is not Fougere’s first rodeo — it’s actually his third. He first spoke in front of the board June 22, in an effort to get approval for the construction so he can operate his landscaping business out of the site. His proposal was submitted May 12.
At a meeting on Aug. 10, Fougere made his case, much to the frustrations of town residents, many of whom spoke up to oppose the project, as it’s located near other residences and could mean an increase in truck traffic and noise.
It has been a long process, which Fougere expressed in straightforward language.
“I want to start putting my kids to bed again, and I don’t want to worry about this anymore,” he said. “I would really love if you could approve this building.”
Board Chair Michael Raisbeck said there are two options: get approval from the Planning Board, which would possibly be conditional, or wait for the Zoning Board of Appeals to “finish their work” and discuss the project Oct 6.
The board was split on the two options, with member Nancy Araway stating she’d prefer to hear the ZBA’s finding before moving forward. Member Annita Tanini agreed, adding she “has issues with the size of the building.”
But member Timothy Shanahan said they’ve “had time to do our homework,” and he doesn’t want to carry it out.
There was confusion surrounding how the structure would function in the zoning district because of its proximity to other residences.
Henry Dane, who represented an abutter, said if the owner decided to sell the property, potential buyers would question the large steel barn, as it wouldn’t fit into the neighborhood. He added that he was unsure whether the board has the authority to issue a permit to build such a structure “that is in violation of the zoning bylaw.”
“If it’s not in compliance now, it would not be in compliance if you added a large commercial building to it,” Dane said. “And it is, no question, a commercial building, given its size, the doors, other features.”
Fougere has stated he will build the barn regardless of whether it’s deemed residential or commercial — the barn’s use would vary depending on what approval he can get.
An abutter, who did not name himself, said he shares about 80 feet with Fougere’s property and doesn’t have a problem with his presence there. If anyone would have a problem, he added, it would be him, but that’s not the case.
“Ever since they moved in, I’ve noticed significant improvements all along that property line,” he said. “I’ve never felt disturbed by anything that went on on their property, as far as trucks or any industrial this or that. I feel like everything he’s done has been to improve the neighborhood.”
Town meeting representative Brian Latina, said “it’s fortunate that the Planning Board is allowed to make mistakes,” referring to a project at 200 Mill Road, a location that was apparently revealed to be “a massive chemical plant.”
While this style of barns are “not unusual” at other properties in Chelmsford, the exact purpose of the barn may not be in the board’s purview, but rather a matter for Town Meeting.
“The neighbors and anybody else moving in have a right to protect their property, and it’s our responsibility as a town not to just say, ‘Well, it’s already there, so let’s just build more in there,’” Latina said. “So, I would tread very carefully, and I don’t believe time is of the essence. These buildings whip up pretty quickly.”
The chances of finding a contractor before this spring is “slim to none,” Fougere said, and he has invested a lot of his own money into the structure. He would use it for his holding company, Dalton LLC, but Araway said she’s “not buying it,” adding that the structure of the barn is “industrial” and would not fit into the neighborhood.
Fougere defended the proposal, stating they are “continuing the heritage” of Chelmsford as a farming town by constructing a garage that appears as a barn. He added that many neighbors he spoke with weren’t even aware that he was running a business at that property, as it’s not totally visible from behind the house.
“We’ve already done engineering and cement plans and everything that we are required to do prior, before we even file a permit,” Fougere said. “We are already tens of thousands of dollars into this project.”
The proposal needed a super majority from the board, but received three yes’s and four no’s. Now, Fougere will have to wait for the ZBA to decide next steps.
This week’s Column was prepared by Melanie Gilbert, Cameron Morsberger, and Prudence Brighton