Planning Board reviews town center sidewalk plan, citizens object

Department of Public Works Director Tim Kilhart appeared before the Planning Board at its Nov. 4 meeting to request site plan approval for the town center sidewalk plan. Around a dozen citizens also attended this meeting, all opposed to the proposed plan. Though the site plan review lasted more than two hours, the board did not reach a conclusion.

The plan proposes upgrading and repairing several sidewalks and crosswalks in the center of town. Controversially, it also would add a new sidewalk to the front of the General Store and Congregational Church parking lots, along Still River Road and a short way down Mass. Ave. This sidewalk would prevent cars from crossing directly between the parking spaces and Still River Road and would also reduce the total amount of parking in the lot (Kilhart estimated that 10 spaces would be lost in spots that are currently used illegally, but that the number of marked spaces would remain the same at 19). The plan would pay for these changes using a $370,000 grant from the state’s Complete Streets program, which, according to Kilhart, must be used by June 2020 or it will be lost. The plan does not include adding sidewalks between the town center and the schools, although that and other upgrades are being worked on separately.

Because the area covered by the plan is in the center of Harvard, many different boards and groups have some jurisdiction over it. According to Town Counsel Mark Lanza, the parts of the plan that do not fall within the public right-of-way require a site plan approval by the Planning Board. The plan, as presented by Kilhart, would require nine different waivers from the Planning Board to various zoning bylaw sections.

According to Director of Community and Economic Development Chris Ryan, Harvard’s precedent is that the Planning Board should always approve a site plan as long as it meets all zoning bylaw requirements (as opposed to other approval processes that allow the board more discretion, such as a special permit). He further explained that the board would generally still approve plans that require waivers, as under normal circumstances denying a waiver could lead to a lawsuit to determine whether the waiver was justified. Ryan said such a suit would be unlikely in this case, and the only probable consequence of denying the site plan approval would be the loss of the grant money.

A concurrent project, under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Recreation Commission, proposes the addition of a new patio between the General Store and Congregational Church, in the area that was recently used as an ice rink and for the set of “Little Women.” Recent changes to the sidewalk plan, designed to reduce the amount of parking that would be lost, call for the new parking lot to intrude 2 feet farther into the patio area than originally planned. According to Bob O’Shea of Old Littleton Road, speaking on behalf of the Parks and Recreation Commission, the commission has not yet approved the new plan.

The Planning Board decided it would not vote on the site plan until the Parks and Recreation Commission approved the new plan. The next Parks and Rec meeting is scheduled for Nov. 18 and the Planning Board meets the same night. If Parks and Rec approves the plan, the Planning Board might make its decision that night, too.

Several citizens voiced complaints about the proposed sidewalk plan. Some, including Ron Ostberg of Warren Avenue, said it would be more useful to have a sidewalk along the interior of the parking lot, directly in front of the General Store and Congregational Church, rather than along the road. Ostberg said this is the area where pedestrians generally prefer to walk.

Kilhart responded by explaining that the roadside sidewalk is needed to provide a barrier between the parking lot and the road. He explained that he, Police Chief Ed Denmark, and external consultants have all agreed that the current status (where cars pull in and out of the lot along its entire length, including close to the intersection) is a safety hazard. Ryan added that the Complete Streets grant money could not be used to pay for an interior sidewalk because it would be located on the Congregational Church’s private land.

Scott Hayward, proprietor of the General Store, brought up concerns about the plan’s effect on traffic in the parking lot. He questioned whether the increased volume of cars exiting onto Mass. Ave. in front of CK Bikes would be safe, given the high traffic on the road, the amount of pedestrian traffic, and the proximity to the intersection. (Some cars currently exit at that location, but with some other exit locations blocked by the sidewalk, the number would likely increase.) He also questioned whether large vehicles, especially fire trucks, would be able to enter the new parking lot.

Jared Wollaston of Elm Street voiced a complaint that many in the audience shared: The plan’s trade-off of less parking and less green space for a new sidewalk is one that he does not feel is worth it. He concluded, “I hope that, around the Common, we can keep our simple sidewalks. More concrete is not acceptable.”

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