WINCHESTER - On night two of remote Town Meeting, members argued, but ultimately passed, Article 14, to give the Planning Board $30,000 from Free Cash to study the barriers to developing the north Main Street area.
According to Planning Board Chair Heather von Mering, north Main Street consists of the area from Skillings Road to the Woburn line. She called the article a “response to Town Meeting requesting (they) study the area.”
She said the 1997 Triangle Master Plan highlighted the area as an “opportunity zone.” It was also listed in the 2017 School Master Plan. von Mering said back in the fall of 2018 that Town Meeting suggested the area “needs to be studied.”
Furthermore, the Planning Board Chair noted the recently completed town wide Master Plan spoke of redevelopment opportunities and public investment opportunities to promote economic vibrancy and walkability, among others.
“The Planning Board debated a lot about whether to bring this before Town Meeting,” von Mering admitted. “We have the time, but we need the funds to do the work.”
One reason for the debate may involve the Finance Committee already allocating $35,000 in the budget to this cause and whether or not the Planning Board wanted to ask Town Meeting for more since they initially requested $60,000.
For this reason, FinCom voted unfavorable action when asked by Town Moderator Peter Haley for their recommendation. The Select Board voted favorable action.
FinCom member John Miller told Town Meeting his committee already approved $35,000 for the Planning Board in the FY21 budget. von Mering argued her board needed the extra money for professional services. She suggested not getting this money would “cut the Planning Board off at the knees.”
“We need professional services for these types of studies,” she explained, adding how “we really need more information for zoning changes.”
One Town Meeting member, Sherry Winkleman, agreed with the Planning Board chair. She even called FinCom “disingenuous” for saying they included this money in the budget.
Other Town Meeting members agreed the Planning Board deserved the additional funds (though some still had questions). Town Meeting member Candace Van Aken said the idea seems wonderful, but she expressed reservations about the timing.
“Is there any guarantee we can act upon (the recommendations of the study) or will we have to redo it?” Van Aken asked, referring to how the coronavirus pandemic has affected traffic and business all over town, including in the north Main Street area.
In response, von Mering said it “depends on what we find and how we address those (issues). Minor zoning changes we can deal with, (but) major changes would take more work.”
She added how the goal involves making businesses more viable.
“These are things we can be more informed about,” she noted.
When asked by Town Meeting member Roger Wilson what data would the study assemble and whether it would be impacted by COVID-19, the Planning Board chair said while the coronavirus would impact an issue like traffic, they could simply use previous data if needed.
Unfortunately, according to Town Engineer Beth Rudolph, there isn’t any recent traffic data for that section of Main Street. Therefore, it’s unclear when the Planning Board would be able to begin the study if the town lacks recent traffic data. Any data gathered during this time would be affected by the coronavirus and probably not applicable going forward.
Regardless of when the study actually takes place, Select Board member Jacqueline Welch called it a “long time coming” and mentioned its importance “for a number of reasons including the Master Plan.”