Officially, the on Tuesday examined a request by Braintree resident Scott Palmer to to General Business.
But the real focus of the night settled on a less tangible idea: the future.
What might the long-blighted property look like if the zoning change is approved and re-development comes? How would a shift in use affect the neighborhood? To what extent is the land environmentally compromised?
At the end of Tuesday's hearing – the latest in a string of meetings held so far on 7-11 Independence Ave. – the council unanimously chose to pursue answers to those questions before voting on Palmer's request, continuing the matter until Oct. 16.
A few councilors said they had previously been inclined to approve the change from Residence B zoning (the Committee on Ordinance & Rules last month), but were swayed by the arguments of neighbors in attendance on Tuesday.
"It's an eyesore that needs to be beautified," Councilor Charles Ryan said. But before that can happen, Ryan added, the councilors and neighbors should hear more details from the owner and developer, especially regarding the environmental problems.
"There's a lot of tender issues here that we need to digest," Councilor Leland Dingee said.
About 20 nearby residents showed up at to oppose what several of them described as a rush to re-zone the property without knowing more about how a future development would affect parking, traffic, the land itself and the general atmosphere of their neighborhood.
Especially disturbing, neighbors argued, has been the poor communication by Palmer and potential developer Thomas Fitzgerald a part-residential, part-commercial plan last winter.
"The way this has been done has been adversarial from the get-go," abutter Patrick Barry said.
Since then, Palmer and Fitzgerald have withdrawn a plan for a 44-unit condominium complex with four commercial spaces, attorney John Garland said. He added that there is currently no plan before town officials, though residents contend that a new, residential-only proposal has been floated by the developer.
Palmer said he agreed that communication could be better, but said he and Fitzgerald's hands have been tied because they cannot discuss a development plan until the zoning is addressed, which would move the project to the Planning Board for more detailed review.
Palmer inherited the property in 2001 from his father Robert, who had hosted several businesses at the location over the years, including a gas station, vehicle repair center and moving company. He also inherited a significant backlog of property taxes.
On the Braintree side, Palmer owes the town more than $158,000, according to a check Garland said he made with the Assistant Treasurer Collector as of July 31, 2012. Palmer is also on the hook in Quincy for about a half a million dollars, according to city records, and an attempt earlier this year by officials there to auction the Quincy part of the property failed, likely because of the sizeable amount owed.
Garland has said that re-zoning would enable Fitzgerald to make a deal with Palmer to pay the back taxes and then move forward with a development plan. Fitzgerald was not in attendence Tuesday night.
Brian Black, one of several neighbors who have been closely following the proposal, said he has lived in the area for 15 years and the council should not act in haste. "Whether's it's one year, three years or five more years, it needs to be done right."
He urged councilors not to act before learning the full environmental picture, pointing to the fact that Garland himself said he was not entirely sure of what was wrong with the land.
Some 700 tons of "petroleum impacted soil and offsite recycling," has been excavated by Green Environmental as of July 3, according to a letter sent to Garland and forwarded to the council. The company has also performed soil borings and created test pits, collected soil and groundwater samples, and submitted reports to the state Department of Environmental Protection, all part of an effort to assess what will need to be cleaned up before development proceeds.
Money has run out, though, and remedial work has stalled, Garland said. Palmer said that he will present any further information he collects from Green Environmental to the council at the Oct. 16 meeting.
Garland stressed throughout the hearing that the zoning change is the only item before the council, but did say that as part of any future development plan "parking is paramount" and traffic studies would be performed as part of the permitting process.