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Developer proposes badminton complex, two commercial buildings for Ayer Road

A three-building commercial complex has passed the initial hurdles of the application process on the path to receiving a permit for a mixed-use development across from Dunkin’ Donuts on Ayer Road and adjacent to Harvard Green condominiums. But whether the current plan meets the definition of “mixed-use” under Harvard’s zoning is a question that must be answered before it can move forward.

The developer, Wheeler Realty Trust, its representative Bruce Ringwall of the firm Goldsmith, Prest, and Ringwall, and the prospective owner of the building, Yvonne Chern, have completed an application with Harvard’s Planning Board for several special permits that would pave the way for a 30,000-square-foot, 35-foot high indoor badminton facility and an agreement to build, at a later date, two more 8,000-square-foot office or retail buildings on the 11-acre site at 203 Ayer Road.

According to site plans, the windowless bulk of the metal building, measuring a little over 23,000 square feet, contains 18 badminton courts. An attached two-story wing with windows facing the road houses locker rooms, a lobby, a one-bedroom apartment, a conference room, a small workout room, a pro shop, and office space. Approximately 170 parking spaces would be built in several sections around the site with landscaping and pedestrian pathways added to connect the buildings. Displaying a proposed rust, brown, and gray color scheme, the building would be clad in stone veneer, clapboard, and a repeating pattern of exterior, insulating wall panels. There are no architectural plans yet for the additional two buildings; plans will be drawn up when the developer has a buyer.

To allow for the maximum building capacity possible on the site, Lou Russo, the developer behind Wheeler Realty Trust, has set his sights on a special permit under the Ayer Road Village Special Permit, or ARV-SP, bylaw, Chapter 125 Section 52, which in general allows for greater density and larger buildings than is allowed under standard commercial zoning in exchange for more attractive design with fewer curb-cuts. The bylaw was created in 2004, according to its stated purpose and objectives, “to assist the Town in creating and maintaining a village identity for commercial properties on Ayer Road,“ and, additionally, for “the promotion of mixed use development.” 

Meaning of ‘mixed-use’ debated

The question of what is mixed-use development and how it can be realized on Ayer Road, where there is no municipally provided water or sewer connection, is at the heart of evaluating the current stage of the proposal. An ambiguity in the zoning bylaw, under which all the permitting is accomplished, leaves the definition of mixed-use vague, although residential housing is mentioned in one section as essential to a mixed-use development with a minimum of 30% housing required.

The decision regarding mixed-use designation is contentious because there is much at stake. Both the developer’s team and the Planning Board members, at the recent May 2 Planning Board meeting, said they intend to seek legal counsel to interpret the bylaws, while an independent peer review of the site proposal is being performed by Beals and Thomas, a Southborough civil engineering firm.

During the May 2 hearing on the special permit application, the developer’s agent Bruce Ringwall defended the developer’s definition, stating “It is a mixed use in that we have mixed use of recreation and commercial office and/or retail.” Russo concurred, “We believe that we are a mixed-use development.”

Director of Community and Economic Development Chris Ryan pushed back at support for accepting the complex as a mixed-use development. “From a planning perspective, residential is a key element of a mixed-use framework,” he said. Several Planning Board members indicated that they would be more comfortable accepting the plan if residential building was included. Ken Atwell, chair of the Harvard Green Board of Trustees and a resident living near the site, also contested the designation in an email to the Planning Board, stating, “The project as currently scoped seems to be the antithesis of ‘mixed-use.’”

Proximity to Route 2 ramps worries board member

Despite the pushback, some Planning Board members still see merit in the project. Brian Cook deemed the description of mixed-use development in the bylaw as “narrow” at the May 2 hearing. He cautioned fellow board members: “We are missing the greater good of having a single drive that is much safer than multiple drives next to each other next to a highway on-ramp and off-ramp. I drive this road daily. It’s the only way in and out of where I live, and putting two or three driveways along that side would be a disaster.”

Ryan estimated traffic to all three buildings would top out at 132 vehicles per peak hour, and a traffic study has been agreed upon by the developer to look further into the matter.

The Planning Board has focused attention on traffic counts because a permit granted under ARV-SP zoning contains a set of circumstances that must be met in order to grant incentives for larger density and size on the site, one of which is that the development will provide “connectivity between adjoining sites, or provisions for curb-cut reduction, shared access, and shared parking.” The May 2 public hearing included debate over whether this language meant connectivity within the site, or between separate properties, as well as whether shared access via pedestrian pathways is adequate or vehicular access was also necessary.

Water and wetlands

A consistent issue that arises when properties are developed on Ayer Road is water—access to drinking water, disposal of sewage effluent, and the presence of wetlands. The developer has been in touch with the Conservation Commission, according to Chair Don Ritchie and member Wendy Sisson, regarding an existing wetland in the middle of the plot, which will be built over. The developer has agreed to replicate the wetland elsewhere on the property at a minimum of 1.5 times larger than the original in accordance with Harvard’s Wetland Protection bylaw. In addition, another wetland is present in the corner of the lot across Gebo Lane from the post office, a result of drainage from Harvard Green, Ritchie told the Press. Wetland replication is not always successful, Ritchie and Sisson noted; however, the naturally occurring wetland does not connect to other water sources, and is less of a priority than some other wetlands.

A large septic system, placed sufficiently far from wetlands and the protected area of wells, will be required for the complex. Abutter Patrick Killeen wrote to the land use administrator to ask for clarification: “the plans as shown have the septic system for this development in the undeveloped space (‘center green’) in the middle of the Harvard Green townhouses. It is my understanding that this land cannot be used for such.” The mound-style septic, drawn on a keyhole- shaped easement on the submitted plan, falls within the protected well area for Harvard Green.

The Board of Health has not yet issued a verdict on the proposed septic design because it was presented with a plan for a warehouse with a much smaller projected flow of sewage disposal than would be consistent with a recreational facility. In a memo dated March 30, the Board of Health brought to light “the very significant differences” in the plan it was given versus that given the Planning Board, but has yet to receive an updated plan from the developers.

Russo asks Ryan comments be ‘taken down’ before peer review

Developer Lou Russo asked in the latest hearing to have comments written thus far by Ryan (which question the suitability of the project for special permit consideration due to falling short of mixed-use criteria) be withheld from the peer review consultant. “And if they are on the website, and I don’t know if they are, then they should be taken down.”

In response, Justin Brown asserted that peer review is a process that allows access to all peer review comments, and that, in general, he “would be concerned about taking down documents that are currently on the website and a matter of the public record and striking them from the public record.”

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