Council Debates Future of Town Common Area

While it wasn’t on the agenda for Monday night’s Town Council meeting, the fate of the Town Common and surrounding area, and the concepts for that part of town as included in the most recent Master Plan, brought a bit of tension to the room.

Council Chairman Tom Dolan said a “lot of energy” was starting to be generated with the Master Plan Implementation Committee around the modernization of the Town Common. He told the Council that in their packet for that evening is an excerpt from the 2013 Master Plan relating to the Town Common. He asked Councilors to look it over before the next meeting.

“Consider what’s in there and with your consensus, I’d like to give the town manager the charge on how we move forward with this initiative,” Dolan said.

“I’m sorry, what would the initiative be?” Councilor John Farrell asked. “The Master Plan is a Planning Board document. Are you suggesting that we support this Master Plan and fund it?”

“I think there are several ideas that we can come back with,” Dolan responded. “One idea that I had was that maybe we could find a way to set as a goal that it be revenue neutral for the town if we could achieve that as well.”

Town Manager Kevin Smith said he and Councilor Joe Green both sit on the Master Plan Implementation Committee.

“This document of what to do with the Town Common in the future is high on the priority list, and it’s something that is one of the first things that we’re looking at as a committee,” Smith said. “The committee doesn’t have any authority – ultimately that lies with the Town Council – but (the committee) would be making recommendations on what the future of things like the Town Common should be, and what would need to be done to support those.”

Dolan said his expectation from the councilors centers on whether they think the infrastructure that is now in place is sufficient. “Do we need to spin off a subcommittee to study this and to get help for it and so forth, and see if this should move forward?” he said. “It may or may not move forward.”

He said he was looking for recommendations at the May 19 meeting from councilors and the town manager “to consider as we look at this and the Master Plan considerations as well.

“I’m just looking for a little clarification here,” he added. “The last two Master Plans, we have not marched down this path. This Master Plan basically eliminates the Town Forest, puts in fields, houses and puts a road in.”

And he didn’t think the citizens of the town know what the plan says.

“I don’t necessarily know that this Master Plan reflects the overall impression of what the community has put forth for the last 10 years,” Farrell said. “I think this Master Plan needs to be looked at. It’s a planning document from the Planning Board, it’s not an execution document for the Town Council. My suggestion is that we need to heavily solicit public input on exactly what this thing says because this is 180 degrees away from any other Master Plan that’s ever been written by the town. I mean, housing in the Town Forest? A road behind the stage?”

Farrell said that people need to understand what the Council would be looking at.

Dolan said that part of the process would be “workshops, public hearings, gathering input, and I think the public would shape this.”

“That’s what I’m looking for. The Master Plan Implementation Committee kind of laid it on the table now rather than just let it lay. I think it’s appropriate for us to consider it and as John mentioned, get public input,” Dolan said.

“Obviously when you are considering making changes to this part of town, considering that it’s been the way it’s been for so long, you want to get as much public input as possible,” Smith said.

Dolan said the town was facing a major transformation of the community across the street from the Town Common.

“So the question is, does it fit?” Dolan said.

Farrell said it was diametrically opposed.

“As the person who has led the economic development discussions for the last 10 years, the entire concept was, ‘leave the middle of the town alone, build around the outside,” Farrell said. “This transposes the town completely. It will look like downtown Reading, Massachusetts. If that’s what we’re looking for, then that’s what it will be. The entire idea around this was build on the highways, build on the thoroughfares, build at the airport. Stay out of the core of the town.”

Dolan said he didn’t think that now was the time for that debate, but said there should be a process and that all the points, pros and cons, should be brought to the table.

Councilor Joe Green said the Master Plan was a conceptual idea, and was not meant to produce exactly what the drawings portrayed.

“The thought process was that the people that did respond said that they felt that they didn’t really even know where their town common was at because it was not in a pinpointed area. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with that but that people said that they wanted to have more activity in the area,” Green said.

He said having the conversation at the council was a good idea.

Councilor Tom Freda said he was on the Planning Board when the Master Plan came up for review and noted the plan encompasses a very drastic change in zoning.

“To the point where it says you will have this here, you will have that there. Apparently it is the latest craze in zoning,” Freda said.

He said it ignored the rights that people have for the property they own.

“The problem is somebody bought property on a given street 15 years ago and they bought it knowing they could do X with it, and now all of a sudden because we’ve come out with a 2013 Master Plan, now they can’t do X with the property,” Freda said.

He noted the number of people who voted for the Master Plan was a small portion of the community and he didn’t think they should have the “sway” to determine the future, without the Council and a lot of public input brought to bear.

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