Topsfield developer Christopher Nash and representatives from Ducharme and Dillis appeared before the Planning Board and a room full of concerned residents on Wednesday night to present a conceptual plan to commercially redevelopment the Smith property on Main Street. It was the second time this year that a developer has appeared before the Planning Board for such a purpose.
Facing the prospect of having to ask for a zoning change at the Annual Town Meeting in May (from residential to business or to limited-business) in order to move the project forward, the developer was looking for indications of support from the Planning Board. He did not get it.
The drawings presented two buildings (a single-floor structure of 13,000 sq. ft. with a drive-through bay, and a two-floor structure of 20,000 square feet), plus 135 parking spaces. The developed area would be confined to about half the lot. Water, septic, and runoff would all be handled on-site. The proponents made it clear that the one-floor, 13,000 square feet building was intended for an anchor tenant, an unnamed chain pharmacy, presumably CVS or equivalent. The other building would house retail shops on the first floor and offices on the second floor. The project hinges on the pharmacy tenant.
The proposal included two entrances from Main Street, one directly across from Wattaquadoc that would require the removal of the existing historic house. The developer acknowledged the need for a traffic study and indicated a desire “to work with the state” in exploring options that would include signalizing the intersection as well as widening Main Street in order to introduce a westbound left-turn lane onto Wattaquadock. Plans seemed to suggest that the use of off-road state highway easements would be required to accommodate the third lane. This would likely encroach upon sidewalks and front yards near the intersection.
There was no mention of a residential impact study.
The developer offered a willingness to negotiate conservation restrictions and trail easements on the rear of the lot in order to control access to backlot properties.
The developer argued that this proposal represented the smallest scale of commercial development that was economically viable for the property given the challenges associated with the parcel—challenges that include a zoning change requirement for business use, costs of contamination cleanup, proximity to wetlands, the existence of a perennial stream (Great Brook) that crosses the property, and the need for traffic congestion mitigation.
Many in the audience and on the Board questioned the scale and architectural style of the proposed buildings as well as the overall impact of the project on the historic town center. When questioned about a new pharmacy on Route 20 in Wayland, Nash admitted that that store “would never have been approved if it was located within the [Wayland Center] historic district”— a district, he added, that is similar to Bolton’s in age and style of architecture. Nash is a former member of the Wayland Historical Commission.
Nash closed his comments by saying that “the bottom line is this tenant [the chain pharmacy] is interested in the town. If the town does not wish the tenant to be in this location, then they’ll go down the street…. The whole idea here is to have an economically viable project to redevelop this critical commercial property in the center of town, which is zoned residential. We’re here informally and if people don’t want to do it then we’ll leave, but the tenant’s not leaving. They will go to another location… And this site will stay vacant and it will not contribute economically and it will continue to be an environmental threat for years to come, in my opinion. That’s not a threat, just a comment.”
After 90 minutes of presentation and discussion, each member of the Planning Board was asked by the Chair to summarize their reactions in an informal poll. “Not appropriate for this site,” said the first Board member. “I’m opposed,” said another, “scale is too large…it is a residential neighborhood…” In the end, none of the six members of the Planning Board voiced support for the proposal. And from the tone of the comments and questions, it was evident that those in the audience were of the same mind as the Planning Board.
It was unclear whether the developer would go forward as planned with a meeting seeking the support of the Board of Selectmen, tentatively scheduled for December 16.
The meeting was broadcast and taped by BatCo (Comcast Ch. 10). Click the triangle below to listen to the full audio of the discussion.