This evening’s BOS meeting went long, but that has been the rule rather than the exception lately. This time, however, it went long because it was long on its agenda. The meeting included a discussion of the working session held on September 16, 2014, that was not televised due to the BOS having to schedule outside of their normal rotation to a night where BATVinc.org had other commitments to cover. The vision statement, goals and principles will soon appear on the town’s website and you will be able to use them as a guide as to how well this BOS and Town Manager team are hitting their objectives.
The meeting was interesting in that for all the disparate issues and varying degrees of closely held political positions, the entire BOS worked rather efficiently and with great comity and professionalism. For example, Selectman Rosa stated outright that he couldn’t support an issue but felt that it would pass anyway. He then tried to work with the group to find some way to move it up for presentation to help it get the attention the other members thought it deserved. I felt proud of our selectmen – every one of them – for making such an effort for the greater good and to serve the goals, objectives and principles they’ve all agreed on.
In the end, once having discussed the warrant articles, they sailed through them quickly and efficiently. The discussions were tight, concise but informed and demonstrated a good grasp of the key issues coming to the Fall Town Meeting. This phase was the last, but it was very well handled.
Two 40B projects were discussed and the board is resolute that it will try to fight them based on current town efforts to improve infrastructure, minimal green space availability, insufficient lot size for the planned number of homes, and more. This fight should be interesting to watch given the history of the Zoning Board of Appeals and Mass Housing’s lack of concern for damage done to individual communities under its bureaucratically driven poor decision making.
I hope that everyone who couldn’t attend but was interested in this meeting got to see it play out on TV. The meeting included a presentation by the town planner on how the Planning Board developing a committee to work up a new and current Master Plan. I liked his perspective of trying to develop a plan according to real life as opposed to pure categories.
Most town master plans are dust collectors. They are written because without them being current towns can be shut out of grants, partnerships with the Commonwealth, and other opportunities for civic improvements and improved quality of life standards. One of the many sources of economic development failures, efficient infrastructure improvement decision and lost opportunities can be traced back to our unused and rarely consulted master plan.
Hopefully, that will change as this plan is updated to include more modern perspectives, requirements and developments that reflect reality and are written in a manner that integrates across categories to provide a mentally visible look into the future from an honestly depicted present.
It is my view that this master plan should coincide and cooperate with a town’s mission statement, that considers and works to preserve the more important and significant elements of our history [not all historical elements are valuable or worth preserving] and provides a vision on how the town might reclaim some valuable land to reverse the drought of recreational and open space land that Billerica is suffering through. And, it seems as if the Town Planner has a similar vision.
Let me give you some example of what I am trying to describe.
We are about to build a new high school. I think most people are in favor of keeping this new school in the same location but elsewhere on the available plot of land.
Others are leaning toward purchasing new land to relocate the new high school. Let’s take this one on first:
With the high school buildings removed, at some point, this plot of land could provide a lot of open space that could be converted into park lands for grown ups and kids alike by replanting trees, flower gardens, bench spaces and an area much larger than the common for bands and outdoor special events usually held there. Granted that there is not a lot of parking in that area if those spaces are used as part of the green space/open land/recreation area, but there is enough nearby that arrangements could be made for people to park and pick up shuttles to the area if need be. In any case, these events would be held with more people, less noise and toxic malodorous fumes from engine exhausts of passing traffic and hazardous road crossing.
What if we as a town decide to use the current site to build a new high school on? Should we simply turn down an opportunity to buy the Cider Mills site if the price is reasonable? Imagine using a portion of that site for farming tomatoes and other vegetables [in tribute to Rome and other farmers past and present], or to set up an arbor way or something of that sort where people could come to and relax as they literally smell the roses, or where students could come to get real life exposure to gardening, horticulture, or farming fundamentals in tribute to Billerica’s past and for building an appreciation for the care and feeding of the land and its bounty well into the future.
Add to that a push for business owners along main roadways [Routes 3A, 129, 38, etc.] to improve their lots over time by adding and maintaining greenery in the form of grass, trees and/or flowers from the sidewalks back a minimum of ten feet or so to draw the eye away from the asphalt, brick, mortar and curling and chipped paint toward a more aesthetically pleasing target.
Could concepts like this be built into a master plan that incorporates well with our general and zoning bylaws? I think so. Would focus on areas such as these help improve the curb appeal of the town? I think so. Would an outdoor pedestrian mall serve Billerica better than the current Shops at Billerica? I think so – just check out the images below and ask yourself where you would rather shop or spend a day off.
The rub here is that such a mall could not be developed in Billerica without a mixed use zoning overlay in place – something the town has rejected twice and caused the initial proposal to be pulled back prior to a formal vote. [Hat tip to Jeff Parenti for trying, a good citizen and a professional traffic engineer who gave a lot of his time to the town only to be driven out of town by small minded people ].
Of course, like any mall, in order to succeed it requires high density population and something unique to draw people there. By mixing residences with shopping in an attractive setting, in this case one that requires a colonial style design within the mixed use overlay zone, density to some degree is built in between the residents and the people who come to visit [and shop or have a nice outdoor walk and meal].
So, the question to ask is whether or not the Shops at Billerica have sufficient surrounding density to draw? Would such a mall be more attractive and appealing than say, the Burlington Mall or the pseudo mall we currently have? What kind of shops do you suppose would want to set up in such a setting – restaurants? – specialty stores? – conventional strip mall businesses seeking a more attractive location or a more diverse clientele? Is there sufficient land for expansion in the area or a willingness for land owners to upgrade their investments for inclusion? Is there a better location for such a mall and such a mixed used overlay zoning area to make its creation possible? Or are you happy with what you have? What other ways can you think of to mix green space, businesses and a mechanism to grow a younger population in Billerica?
What are the down sides should such a design fail? Will our roadways handle traffic? Would expanding public transportation in Billerica increase both access and business in the town center? Would such a project be better served by placing it elsewhere – not out of “small town feel” concerns” but real life concerns. In my mind, a small town consists of homes on 5 acre or larger plots set back into wooded areas with a population so small that everyone knows almost everyone else.
I once lived in an area on the eastern shore of Maryland where minimum lot sizes were 7 acres. The net result was that a lot of land went to waste, prices went so high that only a select few could ultimately afford to buy and build homes that fit the community. Is this what is meant by a “small town feel”?
Could you afford to stay in Billerica for long if that became the norm here?
What about your kids?
Would trying to revert to a small town structure or “feel” price them out of the market by creating a land/housing shortage over time?
What if they had mixed use options as starter homes? Could they afford them better than something on a large lot?
How many students do you think such a mixed use complex would draw seeking small, moderate rent single apartments located in a shopping, food and entertainment complex?
The cost of low density, large lot homes and unused lands are just some of the concerns that led to the evolution of “smart growth” – some of which is good, some of which is not so desirable; but with proper planning and foresight, there is no reason why an educated town with talented leaders couldn’t cull the best from the whole and leave most of the least desirable elements behind.
When has Billerica fit that small town image in the past 50 years? Even in the center area, there are homes close enough together that when someone farts near an open window they can irritate their neighbor with the smell.
There are more sections of town that look more like Somerville than what I remember Billerica as a child due to small lot sizes and high density single homes. 40B only add to that, but with a 40B their is no illusion of private ownership and property rights beyond the front or rear door. The same is true with developments such as that at the Billerica Country Club or apartment complexes throughout the town.
So, describe for me, if you will, how Billerica has a small town feel and where can that be found?
Anyway, if you find me rambling here, I accept the accusation as charged. I am trying some new meds out and I’m also typing beyond my curfew because that is what curmudgeons do. Anyway, what do you think? Are you gearing up for the Fall Town Meeting by getting informed and structuring your thinking accordingly? Or, are some of you still willing to remain the useful idiots of unprincipled, partially informed people masquerading as intellectuals and politicians?
Remember, when it comes to knowledge, drink deep or don’t drink at all if you wish to avoid the dangers we are facing today as a nation in our economics, our foreign affairs, in our politics and in the coarseness found within our ever expanding multiculturalism that tends to split Americans more than unite them in the common pursuit of justice and liberty.
I’ll proof read and edit tomorrow…good night to one and all. Sleep well, Billerica; we have one of the best Police forces and public safety services in all of Massachusetts. Speaking of police, several new officers were introduced and welcomed into the town family of public safety. I’d like to welcome them as well and thank them for their service.