Town Officials Debate Bringing in Planning Firm

CHESTER – Some town leaders are looking to take a pro-active role in the development of the 70 acres of the former Chester College of New England property in the center of town, a parcel that each day is getting closer to foreclosure.

While the town has thick chapters on zoning and subdivision and site plan review regulations, some have a concern about how much those regulations actually protect Chester. There’s also a concern with the gap between those regulations and the collective vision residents have for the historic town center.
A meeting was held on Thursday, Oct. 17, with representation from the board of selectmen, planning board, conservation commission, zoning board of adjustment (ZBA) and interested residents to discuss hiring the planning firm The Better Future Alliance to help the town navigate the land use questions ahead.
Stuart Arnett and Roger Hawk of the Alliance were present at the meeting.
Most of the meeting saw planning board members attempting to explain the need for expert help. Residents Billie and Dennis Maloney and at times Bob Packard had numerous questions and concerns about why the town would pay a firm for planning work, and at this time.
Planning board members Mike Weider and Andrew Hadik did most of the talking on why the planning board thinks the town would benefit in the long term by paying for expert planning advice in the short term.
Weider said no one should be under the impression that developing the land would be free for the taxpayers. He focused on the idea that what residents have envisioned for the center of their town through the Master Plan process is not supported by the town’s regulations, the rules that govern what can and can’t be done with land. While the town wants to have mixed use and to keep the historic look, Weider said the regulations do not offer that. They were written up primarily for residential subdivisions.
Weider pointed to the Jenkins Farm subdivision off Haverhill Road as an example. The planning board approved an 80-lot, 55 and older subdivision, with a specific appearance and appropriate drainage calculations. The developer then argued successfully to change the entire subdivision to single-family homes. Such a change not only significantly adds to the town’s tax bills, as a single family home is far more service intensive than an elderly one, but also impacts issues like stormwater runoff.
Hadik said zoning ordinances don’t protect the town as much as some might think, and not only because lawyers are in the business of finding loopholes for their clients, bypassing the town’s desires for those of the individual developer’s.
Planning chair Brian Sullivan emphasized that the planning process is in depth, and all of the decision-makers are volunteers. The planning board knows the town’s rules, but its members don’t have the time or expertise to adequately handle such an important, and potentially unprecedented, development as what is proposed for the site of the former college.
That’s where The Better Future Alliance comes in, as it offers land use and planning experts.
Arnett said The Better Future Alliance was previously hired by the town to help residents parse the pros and cons of purchasing the college property, something voters turned down during last Town Meeting. In that process the group did in-depth research about the town, its residents’ desires, and what may or may not work on the site.
The Alliance has agreed to hold to its previous discounted rate of $85 an hour, but no time schedule has been agreed upon for the work, nor has the Alliance officially been hired.
Arnett said his goal is to keep something bad from happening with the property while encouraging something positive. While it’s a basic principle, it underlines the potential for the property to have a serious impact on the town’s character.
Arnett explained that rarely is a small town like Chester presented with this kind of opportunity, where a big parcel in the center of town is suddenly available. That combination – a big parcel in the center of a small town – is why so much hinges on getting it right, he said.
The Alliance would work with developer, seller and town alike to push the land to its best outcome.
And there isn’t all the time in the world to get it right, said Arnett.
Speed, but not carelessness, is important for everyone. It’s not in anyone’s interest to let it sit,” he said.
Some audience members thought the planning board is seeking to hire a planner in the interests of a developer, partly because the issue arose while the planning board worked with developer Peter Smith on his efforts to use the property for an elder care complex. Smith was looking for a timeline for project approval and it became clear to the planning board that such an in-depth project was time consuming and in many ways beyond the board’s scope.
While town leaders were adamant that hiring Better Future Alliance was in the interests of the town, as it was inappropriate to spend taxpayer funds to aid a developer, Arnett said the Alliance would be working for the town, but part of that process would mean helping potential developers.
Speed is the other issue. If the property is foreclosed, the mortgage holder will be in the driver’s seat, and may be much less likely to work with the town, Arnett said.
Right now the ordinances and zoning work well for putting houses on the property, something many agree would be a waste of its potential and would add to the already not insignificant flooding concerns on North Pond Road at the far end of the plot.

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.