WINCHESTER - After 18 months, the Master Plan, called Winchester 2030, is nearly complete. It’s been more than 60 years since the town last updated it, so the Planning Board and their partner Jennifer Goldson of JM Goldson had quite the undertaking.
The town last fully updated its Master Plan in 1953. Since then, the town has grown 45 percent. That means more housing, traffic, school-age children, seniors, and less open space that must be accounted for in the new document.
Goldson said the Master Plan is all about everyone getting on the same page regarding both physical development and fostering opportunities for change. In the months she and her team have spent in town gathering resident feedback, she’s seen many themes emerge - some surprising, some not as much.
Overall, Goldson noted the “remarkable level of engagement,” adding there have been 2,000 unique visitors to the website they created to help residents participate in the process.
“I think the draft is a good representation of the themes that kept coming up,” Goldson acknowledged.
Goldson and the Planning Board still have several more meetings left before the board votes to adopt the Master Plan at the end of March. In the meantime, the two sides can iron out any remaining differences and tighten up the document before it becomes official.
Part of that entails finding a balance between competing ideas such as traffic versus transportation safety. It also means crafting a final document not filled with lots of ideas the town can’t afford to implement.
“I don’t know if we’re there yet,” Goldson said about that specific idea, adding the goal would be to use resources wisely to expand.
Breaking down the plan, one of Goldson’s partners, Community Planner and Project Manager Anna Callahan, discussed the four phases: Phase I - Yesterday and Today; Phase II - What Could the Future Be; Phase III - Develop Action Plan; and Phase IV - Plan Adoption and Finalization.
Phase I asked the question, “where has the town been?” Phase II was focused on engagement: Goldson and her team visited Town Day, the high school, the library, and the Jenks Center to gather feedback. Approximately 2,500 people participated.
Phase III involved enacting the visions and goals residents brought forward in Phase II. To do this, Goldson and her team vetted strategies through meetings with various department heads and stakeholders. This lead to five deep dive areas: town center, North Main Street, Holton/Cross Street area, sustainability, and transportation.
Phase IV, which is ongoing, involves public hearings and meetings with the Planning Board, Town Planner Brian Szekely and the Select Board.
A report describing the plan consists of 30-40 pages that include an introduction to the Master Plan, an overview of the planning process, a brief overview of the Phase I findings, and a vision statement. The vision statement reads:
“A civically-engaged, close knit community that is welcoming and inclusive with representative leadership and town government. The community balances new growth with its historic charms and maintains high-quality town services in a fiscally responsible manner.”
In the report, four themes emerged: balancing development with preservation, building community, connecting people to places, and ensuring sustainability. When it comes to preservation, the report shows a vast amount of preservation areas, plus some evolving opportunity areas and connectivity improvement routes and school safety and walkability improvement areas.
Within that first theme, balancing development with preservation, seven goals/strategies emerged: encourage more commercial, mixed-use and compact development, cultivate active support by town leadership for the continued success of existing businesses, create and preserve affordable housing, promoting housing types that allow residents to age within the community, encourage contextually-responsive new development, promote economic development in the town center, and maintain the town’s visual beauty.
One business owner said, “Winchester has a strong sense of community and residents who feel a sense of pride in supporting local businesses. Town center offers a unique meeting ground in which businesses can be a fabric of everyday life.”
For ensuring sustainability, goals include integrating sustainability initiatives within town structures, seeking out and seizing opportunities to leverage funding with local, regional and national partners, preserving and improving existing open space, preparing for climate impacts by protecting public infrastructure, and providing town services in a streamlined and equitable manner.
A website visitor wrote, “In 2030, I envision empowered residents taking on climate change and sustainability in a meaningful way.”
For the theme of building community, goals include establishing robust and effective communication between residents and town government to increase participation in town decisions, expanding community initiatives that increase cultural, ethnic, religious, and economic diversity and collaboration, maintaining Winchester’s investment in teachers, schools and students, increasing and improving spaces for community events, artistic ventures, athletic fields, and recreational facilities, and building a welcoming and supportive community.
Forum participants said they envision, in 2030, “(an) expanded Jenks Center as a home for all community non-profit groups and space for community gatherings and events. (It) serves as a civic center bringing groups and individuals into synergy instead of silos.”
Another said, “every student is able to participate in activities (sports, music, etc.) and not be restricted by fees/expenses.”
For connecting people to places, goals include improving walking and biking safety, working closely with the MBTA to improve public transportation and creating and supporting a comprehensive transportation network.
A website visitor wrote about 2030, “I envision walkability, including more crosswalks in key locations to connect neighborhoods.”
Callahan summed up the plan by noting it “shows protection for environment and neighborhoods and improves school safety and walkability.”
When asked by Select Board member (and acting chair) Michael Bettencourt about any surprises, Goldson mentioned how a lot of the themes identified early on remained until the end. However, she admitted to not being all that shocked.
“I was surprised by not being surprised, if that makes sense,” Goldson admitted.
Members of the Select Board offered praise to members of the project team for their hard work in putting together this important document that will (hopefully) lead the town into the next decade.
“My hats off to you,” said Susan Verdicchio, adding her support for a plan she called actionable and not just a big wish list.
Jacqueline Welch thanked members of the Planning Board (chair Heather von Mering, Elizabeth Cregger, Heather Hannon, Diab Jerius, and Maureen Meister) and Goldson.
“I’m excited for this report,” she remarked, “like they were probably in the 50s.”
Bettencourt appreciated the “fully engaged sessions,” noting they were not “just being lectured to.”
Szekely, the Town Planner, admitted surprise that traffic and transportation kept getting brought up along with the need for better communication with Town Meeting.
Meister called the document readable, but added how it’s the beginning of the process and not the end of it.
“Planners have to keep meeting with the Select Board (because) we can’t set the priorities,” she acknowledged.
Town Manager Lisa Wong called it an “enormous and tremendous” task to update the Master Plan. She added how the town needs to invest in communication and community engagement. Wong also mentioned the idea of forming an Implementation Committee and said she would put aside $100,000 in the FY21 budget for implementation of the plan once the Planning Board adopts it.
Members who worked on the plan were the Planning Board, Town Planner, Master Plan Steering Committee (Samantha Allison from the Finance Committee, Tracy Burhans from the Design Review Committee, John Clemson from the Historical Commission, Denis Collet (precinct 1 representative), Pamela Cort (precinct 5 representative), Magda Ferrari (precinct 7 representative), James Johnson (precinct 6 representative), Keri Layton (precinct 2 representative), David Miller from Conservation Commission, Zeke Nims from the Conservation Commission), Sherry Winkleman (precinct 8 representative), and Robin Wolf (precinct 4 representative)), Town Manager, town staff including Jenks Center Director Phillip Beltz, DPW Director Jay Gill, IT Director Matt Griffin, archivist Ellen Knight, Town Clerk MaryEllen Lannon, Police Chief Peter MacDonnell, Assessor Dan McGurl, Board of Health Director Jennifer Murphy, Town Engineer Beth Rudolph, interim Recreation Director James Sullivan, Treasurer Sheila Tracy, Fire Chief Rick Tustin, Assistant Town Manager Mark Twogood, HR Director Michelle Vibert, Conservation Agent Elaine Vreeland, Town Comptroller Stacie Ward, Building Commissioner Al Wile, and library director Ann Wirtanen.
Others who assisted include the Housing Partnership Board, Select Board, Climate Action Plan Committee, Finance Committee, Jenks Center, League of Women Voters, Network for Social Justice, Rotary Club, Town Common Task Force, Transportation and Traffic Advisory Committee, Chamber of Commerce, Cultural Council, Farmers Market, and Wright-Locke Farm Conservancy.
Goldson also had help from RKG Associates, Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates, Bob Mitchell, and Toole Design Group.