TEWKSBURY — The Tewksbury Planning Board met on Aug. 17, 2020, for a meeting via teleconference to revisit several pieces of old business.
The board held a discussion about sidewalks with the Department of Public Works. Town Engineer Kevin Hardiman explained to the board the DPW is currently trying to finish two miles of sidewalks along Shawsheen Street; the DPW currently has $325,000 for the project and the board has about $100,000 for sidewalks exclusive of Main Street project money.
Hardiman wanted to see if the board would consider using some of their money to fund the Shawsheen sidewalk. Pricing is currently uncertain, but Hardiman expects to use a phased construction process as the project finances become clearer; construction pricing and stakeholder outreach are slated for winter, with construction starting in the spring.
Hardiman noted several sidewalk projects in the community, including the completed East Street and Chandler Street sidewalk section, connecting the baseball fields to the library and town hall, and an extension to the South Street sidewalk.
“It’s not a monumental project, but it helps fill in the missing pieces,” he said.
Hardiman also spoke about the importance of connecting neighborhoods to amenities and giving residents a safe way to get outside and walking, especially with the pandemic. The board continued the discussion to their next meeting.
The board reviewed an approval not required plan for 970 and 984 Main St. Assistant Town Manager Steve Sadwick explained the ANR is a land exchange between the property owner and the town; two small, unbuildable parcels will be swapped for each other. Being a fairly routine proceeding, the board voted to endorse the ANR plan.
The board reviewed suggested changes to the town’s subdivision rules and regulations from a committee started in 2017 to update the regulations to current procedures in town and to be in accordance with state standards. The group included Sadwick, Hardiman, DPW director Brian Gilbert, Town Planner Anna McGinty, and local developer Marc Ginsburg.
The group suggested making adjustments to ANR submissions, the sidewalk waiver donation process and digital data submission, providing a draft for the board to review. The board tabled the discussion to their next meeting.
The board returned to a discussion about a definitive subdivision/open space residential design for 181 Pine St. The developer is seeking to incorporate some changes to the plan, but several board members took issue with “unresolved questions.”
Additionally, member Steve Johnson took issue with an abutter letter claiming the board did not listen to senior citizens.
“I don’t know of any time when we’ve ignored, mistreated, or not given respect to everyone who comes in, in particular any seniors who come before the board,” he said.
Two residents called in to ask questions about trees and flooding in relation to the changes. Because audio was difficult to hear, the board will provide plans to the residents through the community development department. The board decided to table the discussion to the next meeting.
The board reviewed a sign special permit application for Smitty’s Liquors at 1091 Main St. Owner Dean Graffeo is seeking to add an electronic sign to the existing pylon. The board approved the application, along with several waivers.
The board continued a site plan special permit discussion for 2512 Main St. to the next meeting.
The board reviewed a sign special permit for Merrimack Meadow Lane. Property manager Robert Cormier told the board that several cars have hit the sign over the years, and with the street being newly paved, the owner would like to move the sign.
The board discussed changing the pavement to assist drivers with the turn onto the road, such as adding a rumble strip. The sign will be illuminated. The board approved the application with several waivers.
The board continued a discussion about a land disturbance permit for 180 Pond St. on the site of the former DAV building to the next meeting.
McGinty reviewed correspondence with the board. The board voted to send a letter to the owner of 1768 Main St. instructing them to paint directional arrows to prevent a car crash. McGinty also mentioned an email she received from a resident who had been tested for coronavirus at the Tewksbury Circle Health Urgent Care and had a positive experience with the traffic flow in the location.
The board previously held a lengthy discussion about allowing a testing site at Circle Health and raised concerns about potential traffic issues.
Board members raised concerns with the quality of the virtual meeting, especially the audio.
The meeting was “a complete disaster,” said member Vinny Fratalia, calling the WebEx system “ridiculous” because “nobody can hear our communications, no one is audible, nobody can hear any stuff that goes on here... I would even rather meet in person and do a six-feet separation in town hall.”
Chairman Bob Fowler said he met with Sadwick on the issue of meeting in person in town hall. Fowler explained that he and Sadwick determined that the board would be able to space out safely, but could not accommodate the public and proponents in the building, which may have implications for compliance with Massachusetts Open Meeting Law.
Fowler floated the idea of allowing relevant parties into the meeting room for each specific agenda item, then vacating the room before the next agenda item.
“What would happen if someone wanted to come in just to listen?” he asked. “We would have to tell them they can’t,” and could only have abutters and proponents, who would wait outside in the hallway.
Member Steve Johnson said that while the night’s meeting had been difficult, most of the board’s meetings have been fine.
He also expressed concerns with holding in-person meetings during the pandemic.
“I’m a little leery of telling people that they have to come into the town hall now,” he said. “If petitioners don’t want to come in there, what’s the option now? Now they can’t have a hearing, because the only place to do it now is in person? I worry about what that forces people to have to decide… now we’re bringing a lot of people into a room from who-knows-where.”
Fratalia said that he would be fine with moving to a different meeting platform, such as Zoom.
“This isn’t working,” he said. “Three and a half hours doing this Planning Board stuff, none of the other boards meet this long, none of the other boards have presentations like we have.”
(Planning Board meetings routinely run between two and four hours both pre- and mid-pandemic).
Resident Barbara Flanagan called in to say she had been watching the meeting live and found the audio easy to understand from several attendees, including Eric Ryder, McGinty, and the call-in residents.
She asked what had happened with the DAV land disturbance permit; Fowler said the issue had been continued to the next meeting.
“I hope your format improves,” she said. “Or at least the people who are speaking in the meeting can speak up a little, a little more clearly.”
McGinty offered to meet with Sadwick to weigh options for fixing the issues with the meeting without violating state law.
The next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 14, 2020. Residents wishing to comment may find the call-in number on their screen and on the meeting agenda on the town website. The meeting may be viewed on Comcast channel 99 and Verizon channel 33.