HARVARD -- After hearing the Planning Board's case for the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission to create a "transportation plan" for the Town Center, selectmen last week voted 3-to-2 to go ahead, provided there are no strings attached.
Planning Board Chairman Kara Minar and town planning consultant Bill Scanlon assured the board that the outcome of the study, expected to take up to a year and at no cost to the town, will be a report with recommendations, not a contract.
But Selectman Leo Blair was skeptical. "This is one of those free studies that lead to justifying massive, multi-million-dollar projects, he said. "I'm against it."
Minar and Scanlon said the goal of the study, for which MRPC has allocated $25,000 in state and federal funding, is to plot out a safer, more pedestrian-friendly Town Center.
Once the report is complete, the town can choose to implement the recommendations or not, they said, presumably without cost or obligation.
It's worth noting that the Town Center traffic situation - scant parking, a tricky four-way intersection at the confluence of busy Route 110/111 and Still River Road and lack of safe walkways and crossings - has been recognized as a problem for a long time.
The issue has been studied by a succession of town committees whose recommendations were shelved, along with the studies. The most recent try is the Town Center Action Plan.
Minar said the MRPC study would pick up where the action plan left off.
In a letter to selectmen preceding last week's discussion, the Planning Board explained that the MRPC initiative was in the "review process" stage, allowing time to make changes in the scope of the study.
"The Planning board fully supports" the idea, Minar told selectmen, noting how it fit nicely with the piece of the Master Plan that focused on Town Center-centric issues.
Asked what locations, specifically, the MRPC study would target, Minar said there's no map yet but the area would likely be from Town Hall to the intersection and out to Pond Road, the schools and the library and would include Hildreth House and the fire station.
Selectman Marie Sobalvarro expressed concern about how the new study might "synch up" with paving projects and other initiatives involving the Town Center area such as the Mass Dept. of Transportation's "Safe Routes to School" program.
For example, it would be key to align different sets of plans if the MRPC report called for sidewalks, she said.
Selectman Lucy Wallace said MRPC planners should also take a look at the Town Center Action Plan, which recommends pedestrian and bike paths radiating from the school parking lot. "Nobody wants a sea of asphalt," in Harvard's scenic center, she said.
Blair predicted people would reject a makeover anyway. "Any significant change to the center of town will be resisted," he said. "It would make the Town Hall (renovation) flap seem like a walk in the park."
In his view, studies are used to justify a course of action people don't want, Blair said.
But Scanlon argued that there's a need to frame a "vision of what's necessary" and this proposal is a means to that end. "There are a number of ways a study can be used," he said, but not the way Blair indicated.
Selectman Ron Ricci sided with Blair.
Noting the reconfiguration several years ago of stop signs at the four-way intersection to better regulate through traffic, he said that was a homegrown idea and proved the town doesn't need "outsiders telling us what to do."
When it came to a vote, Sobalvarro made the motion contingent on written assurance from MRPC that the study would not "trigger" any action. The motion passed by a majority. Wallace, Sobalvarro and Chairman Stu Sklar said yes. Blair and Ricci said no.