By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The future of development along the Merrimack River is likely to be the first big decision for the new City Council or the last important one by the current group.
Sometime in late December or early January, councilors are expected to vote on a proposal by Mayor James Fiorentini to adopt new rules for developing property along the river, including some of the most notable and vacant parcels in the city.
The mayor’s proposal creates eight separate zones for developing property along the river, each with different rules aimed at encouraging specific uses and providing public access to the waterfront.
“This is one of the most important things we’re going to be doing next year,” Fiorentini said of the proposal. “The river belongs to all of us, not just developers who are fortunate enough to be able to own property on it.”
The plan, which planning officials and a committee formed by the mayor have been working on for several years, is expected to impact Haverhill for years to come.
Fiorentini submitted his waterfront zoning ordinance to the council this week. The Planning Board is expected to hold a public hearing on the proposal in December and then pass along recommendations to the council, said city planning official Andrew Herilihy. The council, by majority vote, can amend the proposal prior to voting.
“The timing is such that it’s likely to be ready for a vote around the first of the year,” Herlihy said of the zoning ordinance.
All nine council seats are up for grabs in Tuesday’s election. The new council’s first meeting is expected to be Jan. 7.
The new waterfront zoning would control development on various properties, including the site of the former Friend’s Landing nightclub at 85 Water St.; the city-owned Ornstein Heel property and the privately owned Haverhill Paperboard site, both in Bradford; as well as another large parcel once known as Hoyt and Worthen Tanning.
The rules would also govern development of some of downtown’s most high-profile buildings, such as the Woolworth, Ocasio and Newman’s Furniture buildings on Merrimack Street. Those buildings are being developed by a group that includes the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the Greater Haverhill Foundation.
The owner of the 85 Water St. parcel recently filed a proposal to build 59 luxury condominiums at the site of the former Friend’s Landing nightclub, which was demolished in 2007.
“If the city could afford it, I’d buy many of these waterfront properties,” the mayor said. “But since we don’t have the money, this is the next best thing. These rules will put some restrictions on developments, but that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
The crux of the new rules is that developers would be required to provide public access to the river on all new projects.
“Wherever it is feasible to do so, the ordinance requires that any large-scale new development provide an easement or strip reserved for public use along the waterfront,” reads a letter from Fiorentini to the council.
Developers willing to provide additional public benefits, such as building a park, playground or finished walkway, or connecting their property to the city’s downtown boardwalk, would be given additional perks. Those considerations include faster local approvals and, in some cases, the right to build more housing units than would be allowed under regular zoning rules, the mayor said.
“In Bradford, this could mean that someday we will be able to extend our rail trail along the waterfront,” Fiorentini said. “Along the northern (downtown) side of the river, public access could mean that there is always a walkway or boardwalk along the river.”
The mayor said the goal of the plan is to make certain that every developer provides public access in some manner.
“We have turned our backs on the river for over a century,” he said. “This ordinance turns us forward so that the river is our focus.”
Existing businesses in the new zones would not be affected.
“If someone is currently operating a business in a zone that is going to be rezoned residential, they are allowed to continue that business,” the mayor’s letter to the council said.
In developing the proposal, Fiorentini said his zoning committee reviewed successful waterfront rules adopted by other cities and towns across the country. The city also hired an outside expert, Denise McClure, to help guide the review, the mayor said.
“We obtained input from abutters, advisers, experts, architects and people familiar with zoning and zoning concepts, including our own zoning attorney,” Fiorentini said.