Master Plan Receives Overwhelming Endorsement
Slightly more than 100 voters were present Monday night at the second session of Annual Town Meeting to make a decision on the ratification of the far-reaching, updated Comprehensive Master Plan; and 81 of those voters approved the plan as it was presented. Planning Board member George Barringer spoke for the Board advising voters that efforts to update this plan, which the board is required to do by state law, started in 2009, when the town voters authorized hiring a consultant to begin the update. He stressed that an extensive series of public participation meetings were held and the draft plan was issued in March 2011, and further refined with eight working groups.
He acknowledged that there were many issues around use of the term 'sustainability' as the overarching theme of the Master Plan, but said that the Planning Board defined it as it relates to Groton as "using optimal resources for today, tomorrow and into the future to make Groton a better place for everyone."
Barringer said that the Board appreciates all who sent in their comments in writing and online. "The Planning Board is committed to this Master Plan, it is a vision and we will review it over time."
Next step for the plan, Phase 2, is implementation, which will see proposed new regulations and changes to zoning. He stressed that voters will continue to have a say in what happened, "This is an ongoing process. Any proposed zoning changes will require a two-thirds majority" vote at Town Meeting. "We are not breaking new ground but are expanding what had been said for many years," he said.
Russ Harris of Longley Road spoke in opposition to endorsement of the Master Plan, stressing that since the draft of the plan was released there "has been a growing tide of criticism" with people who are uneasy, unsure and anxious that grow from a single root cause, which Harris said is the attitude that the "Planning Board knows better than the people." He said that one of the components of the Master Plan intends to remove the power of residents to vote at Town Meeting on whether or not to approve Concept Plans. He cited comments from at least one Planning Board member who claimed that there were legal questions regarding Concept Plans but no proof of what these were.
Harris cited the residents who submitted detailed critiques, providing public testimony both verbally and in writing and, "You (Planning Board) did not change a single word or a single sentence" in the document. "What is the purpose of a public hearing? The board dismissed it without comment. Are the ideas so clearly correct that no response is needed...We need some kind of a response."
Harris termed the use of the word 'sustainability' as "an ill-defined environmental bliss. It has as many meanings as there are people," adding that it causes greater confusion. He noted that the plan contains a "twist on reality to a pre-conceived notion" and pointed to 134 Main Street as an example of this where the Planning Board sought to include this property in a special overlay district, "giving us an opportunity to peer into the future to see what we can expect. If you like the way 134 Main Street was handled, you are going to love this plan. You are being asked to ratify this plan without a single change," he said, asking "isn't there reasonable doubt?"
Barringer acknowledged that there were negative comments given to the Board at their public hearings, "but we also heard positives. We are not neglecting inputs coming in the last day. We are not changing hours of well-intended work that was crafted by volunteers."
Regarding the 134 Main Street issue, Barringer said that Town Meeting approved that zoning. "You will see the outcome of what you voted for ...the Planning Board listens to the public."
In regard to the theme of sustainability in the Master Plan, Barringer said, "We are not trying to draft a secret agenda; we are not looking at global issues, we just want the town to work better."
He addressed the Concept Plan concerns, saying" This is approved by Town Meeting. We are not taking this over by fiat. We listen to the public. We do not operate in a vacuum."
Resident Scott Harker also spoke in opposition to the Master Plan, noting that from the beginning "sustainability" was the theme and there was no opportunity to change this. He noted that the total cost for the consultants to do the Master Plan was $94k; "The final plan had 188 pages at a cost of $520 per page." There were three consultants that were supporting the use of the "sustainability" theme and they were leading throughout the whole process, Harker said. "What the Planning Board has not acknowledged is that there was at least one Planning Board member and someone from the Sustainability Commission on every one of the working group...It was salted for a specific reason to ensure that sustainability continued [to be the main theme]." He noted that the plan was ready in September 2011 and was not released until December 2011 at the height of the holiday season when people would not read it."
"Why the arrogance and indifference? This is the source of my discomfort. There is something of significant value taken from us and that is our right to consent,' he said.
Barringer again acknowledged the negatives that the Board heard throughout the process. "The comments were well taken and if they are meritorious they can be brought forward as amendments." He said that a Planning Board member was on all the work groups for consistent communications and that the Sustainability Commission asked to be part of the process, "not to subvert or salt the groups."
Sustainability Commission member Michael Roberts pointed out that 'sustainability is consensus, and that the goal is to help the community be self-sufficient by making incremental improvements. He stressed that "equity of benefits is the core value of the Commission."
Resident Jenifer Evans reported on the treatment she received at a Master Plan public hearing when the response to the comments she made were, "Why didn't you volunteer for a committee." She added that she was not treated with respect. Evans said that one of the positives of the plan was the potential to think regionally with adjacent towns. But, "This is wonderful, feel good social engineering. Social equity is the theme throughout the housing section." She stressed that housing for low income people needs to be close to jobs and transportation. "There are no jobs and no transportation in Groton Center," she said, adding that the vision to be sustainable is that we need more socio/economic diversity in our town. "Groton is a move up town. I don't think that we can justify that housing in Groton is a human right."
Land Use Director Michelle Collette advised that policy directions for communities comes from the Commonwealth of Mass, and "a community has to follow community sustainability principals of equity and ensure social, economic and environmental equity." She added, "At this time, the Planning Board is not proposing to eliminate the Concept Plan."
Former Planning Board member Ray Lyons urged support for the Master Plan, stressing the changes from a farmer/factory workers population 30 years ago, to a much different kind of population today, He said when the first Master Plan was completed for the town by Charles Eliot in the 1960s it was very radical - it laid the groundwork for how Groton looks today. Lyons pointed out that not all Eliot's recommendations were followed, and said voters turned down a proposed bypass that would have started near the Deluxe facility (formerly NEBS) and come out well past the current post office.
Following further discussion, the Master Plan was endorsed on a hand count vote of 81 in favor of the article and 20 opposed.