Town center residents mobilize opposition to sidewalk and parking lot renovations

A new coalition formed by town center residents Scott Hayward, Ron Ostberg, Jared Wollaston, and Billy Salter is calling on the town to reconsider a plan that would upgrade existing sidewalks and crosswalks in the town center, add a new sidewalk along Still River Road from the Congregational Church to the General Store, and specify entrance-exit points at the town-owned, General Store parking lot. The plan would be paid for with a $370,000 grant from a state program that promotes “safe and accessible access for all travel modes.”

In an email to ‘friends’ and a posting to the social media site Nextdoor, Town Center Concerned Citizens asserts that, “The DPW (Department of Public Works) is about to initiate a project which will materially diminish the beauty of the Common, while reducing pedestrian safety.” The letter criticizes the process, too: “There is no building committee, no meetings, no minutes,” and suggests creating a “building committee of stakeholders,” such as those formed for Town Hall, the old library, and the town’s senior center, Hildreth House.

The group’s email and online posting urged citizens to attend the Nov. 5 Select Board meeting, and more than 60 people obliged, with only one person of the 10 who spoke voicing approval. Nate Finch of Codman Hill Road lauded the pedestrian safety improvements he believed were offered by the new Still River Road sidewalk, wider replacement sidewalks, and re-designed crosswalks. Finch was also the only person who championed the improved access for those with mobility issues, including wheelchair users.

A crowd attends the Select Board meeting Tuesday, Nov. 5, about the sidewalk and parking lot plan. (Photo by Tim Clark)

The other speakers either opposed the plan entirely or expressed reservations, especially about the new Still River Road sidewalk, which Ostberg suggested be replaced with an “inboard” sidewalk to be “integrated with design of the space between the Congregational Church and General Store.” Carl Sciple of Fairbank Street kept his comment even pithier than required by the Select Board’s one-minute time limit: “I’d rather do nothing and lose the grant than do it wrong.”

The Select Board meeting came just one day after a site plan review by the Planning Board ended without a decision (see article, page 1), and one week after the DPW withdrew an application for a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals that would have asked for shallower parking spaces. Also last week, Historical Commission Chair Pam Marston told the Press that, according to town counsel, decisions pertaining to the sidewalk plan were, “not within our purview,” resulting in the commission’s Oct. 30 decision to take no vote on the project.

The now controversial plan developed over a roughly four-year period beginning in 2015, when the Town Center Traffic Committee began holding public meetings with planners from the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission, drawing on goals from the 2005 Town Center Action Plan and from the 1988, 2002, and 2016 master plans. After a study was produced in 2016, the Planning Board directed then-Town Planner Bill Scanlan to submit a grant application that included sidewalks on Mass. Ave. It was rejected by the MassWorks Infrastructure program, but a scaled-down application to the Complete Streets program was approved for funding in the summer of 2018.

As planned, the new Still River Road sidewalk would end abruptly on Mass. Ave., in front of CK Bikes, prompting questions about connecting existing paths and finding ways to walk to school.

Former Select and Planning board member Tim Clark, of Bolton Road, suggested that connections outside the town’s right-of-way—and other potential pathways that are inherently non-conforming to the state’s grant conditions—might need to be paid for by the town itself, or privately. An example of such a pathway is the “inboard” one put forward by Ostberg, which would connect the so-called minister’s path—starting at the Bromfield parking lot and running the length of the Congregational Church—to a path leading straight to the General Store, and on the same side as the store.

As for walkways to school, Superintendent Linda Dwight said this week that two grant applications have already been denied by the state’s Safe Routes to School program, partly because too few pupils actually live within theoretical walking distance. Writing an acceptable grant for Mass. Ave. has also been complicated by its status as a state route, and its proximity to existing homes and utility poles, according to Kilhart, who helped Dwight write the grant applications.


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