GROTON -- In a fast-moving second session of spring Town Meeting, residents debated changes to the town's zoning bylaws regulating agricultural activity and approved a concept plan for a proposed medical office building to be located off Boston Road.
The concept plan offered by local businessman Peter Myette for the construction of a pair of office buildings that would replace an existing structure on his 120 Boston Road property was described to voters at the April 23 Town Meeting in a presentation by attorney Robert Anctil and the plan's architect before the floor was given over to debate.
As proposed, Myette's plan is to redevelop 3 acres of his property to construct a pair of two-story buildings, one with a footprint of 8,305 square feet and the other with 2,400 square feet.
The total project will come to 21,410 square feet of floor space.
Due to a quirk in the town's zoning regulations, however, the property is zoned partially for business and partially for residential/agricultural use. And because the square footage of the buildings proposed for the site total more than 10,000 square feet, a concept plan required approval by Town Meeting in order to avoid a time consuming change in zoning.
According to Anctil, his client needed to move quickly on the project because Pediatrics West, a prospective tenant interested in the site, needed it ready by a date certain and hoped Town Meeting could help him do that.
The problem was that Myette was opposed by Dottie Mack, owner of Avalon Home Design located next door and with whom Myette shares a septic system.
It was Mack's contention, as she expressed at Town Meeting, that being forced to connect to town sewer services would be too expensive for her and that the buildings being proposed would hide her own from view.
"It's an inconsiderate plan to me as an abutter," Mack told the 106 residents in attendance at Town Meeting. "It may very well tank a struggling small business, and that's not fair."
But Anctil assured residents that his client had every intention of working with Mack to make sure her concerns were addressed and Board of Selectmen member Joshua Degen reminded everyone that approval of the concept plan did not mean approval of the project as presented, which still had to pass through the town's usual site-plan review process.
With the support of selectmen, the Planning Board, the Economic Development Committee and the Board of Trade, the article was approved by a clear two thirds majority of Town Meeting.
Residents also approved changes to the town's zoning bylaw regarding agriculture, which eliminated special permit requirements for most farm activities, including husbandry and approving such activity outright in various residential/commercially zoned areas of town.
The amendment also brought local zoning in line with state law regarding the housing of agricultural laborers.
But it was the issue of husbandry that drew the most attention, with an amendment to the article being offered that would have restricted all farm animals to just 15 in each category.
"I think that's quite unreasonable," said local landowner Steve Webber, who noted that under the suggested change, most cows would not be allowed at Gibbet Hill farm.
Characterizing the proposal as "anti-farming" and evidence of "swineaphobia," Conservation Commissioner Bruce Easom said that state law provided cover for the proposed amendment.
But those concerned over the change in the bylaw were not intimidated with Betsy Pine asking what protections would ordinary homeowners have against a neighbor on an undersized lot from raising farm animals right next door?
"I'm for pigs," declared Kevin Mandel before registering his concern about possible "loopholes" in the amended bylaw and of covering both large properties and residential properties with the same brush.
"I'm not against farmers," asserted Mandel.
"I think that this may be premature," said Scott Harker, voicing a desire by some to see the issue tabled for the time being and possibly retooled.
Town Planner Michelle Collette noted that the town's Agricultural Commission, which was sponsoring the bylaw change, operating as a referral agent for problems dealing with local agriculture went a "very long way" in resolving the few issues that had come up over the past several years.
Defending the proposed changes, Degen said Groton had an agricultural heritage of long standing and he wanted to see that protected. He knew that when he first moved to town. The selectman also noted that the town has acted swiftly in the past to tackle agricultural complaints.
But resident Robert Stevens challenged that assertion, recounting a problem neighbor he has had who conducted far more activity on his property than simple farming when he held auctions, antique car rallies and rock concerts next door. In that instance, he said, the town was of little help.
Degen, however, reminded residents that what the Agricultural Commission was trying to do with the zoning changes was to bring town regulations into line with existing state law.
In the end, residents voted down the suggested amendment and went on to support the zoning changes.
Also at the April 23 Town Meeting, residents:
* Voted to reaffirm the town's tax exemption for elderly, blind and disabled veteran homeowners.
* Voted to accept Paquawket Path as a public way.
* Learned that a potential buyer for the disused Squannacook Hall decided to withdraw his bid, thus triggering an indefinite postponement of a measure that would have authorized selectmen to sell or lease the historic building.