PEPPERELL -- Proposed amendments to the town's Protective Zoning Bylaw attracted more than 50 residents to the Pepperell Community Center as the Planning Board held several public hearings on that and other proposed warrant articles in order to solicit citizen input.
The changes to the zoning bylaw, which are included across 11 proposed warrant articles for the spring Town Meeting, include redefining "domestic animals" and "kennels," adding a new "neighborhood business" zoning district to the table of uses, and rezoning the Peter Fitzpatrick School parcel from town residence to neighborhood business.
The changes represent a potpourri of change reflected in previous efforts by both town officials and residents during past public hearings and Town Meetings.
Deleting the definitions of accessory pet day care facility and commercial kennel, and replacing them with commercial boarding or training kennel, commercial breeder kennel, and personal kennel recalled the emotion-charged debate over a proposed "doggy day care" facility at 80 South Road in 2011.
"What we're trying to simply do is stay in line and consistent with state law and our language in our bylaws," said Chairman Richard McHugh.
Judy Dalton of Powhatan Road asked the board if the deletion of "accessory pet day care facility" would once and for all remove the possibility of such a commercial operation ever being proposed again for a residential neighborhood.
"Is this going to eliminate the angst that we had last year, or are we going to have to be concerned about this again," asked Dalton.
"This doesn't change how our zoning is currently done, it only changes the definition or descriptions," said Commissioner Albert Patenaude.
Town Counsel Ned Richardson noted that the proposed article totally removes any possibility of having an entity called an "accessory pet day care facility" in town, but would not remove the possibility of special permit requests through the Board of Selectmen for commercial kennels in the proposed neighborhood business zone or in commercial and industrial zoning districts.
A new neighborhood business zoning district would add an eighth column to the table of principal uses in the protective zoning bylaws. The proposed new zoning walks a fine line between current town residence and commercial zoning with a change to the Peter Fitzpatrick School property clearly the focus. An effort by the Board of Selectmen to rezone the school property to commercial last year failed at Town Meeting. Many of the same residents who opposed the change at that time were in attendance at Monday's Public Hearing.
"From the view of the Planning Board and the view of other town officials, if the school district decides they no longer want that building, it becomes the responsibility of the town. If the town has to take that over, it's zoned residential. We can't use that building as a residence as a town," said McHugh.
"I believe it's the belief of this board that if that property becomes ours to control, if it's zoned some sort of commercial, our town could lease it, we could rent it, we could use it as the building exists," he said.
Currently there are school district offices located in the building. The change to a neighborhood business zoning district includes four additional parcels adjacent to the school property.
McHugh noted that 30 of the 90 commercial provisions for the tables of principal uses would be changing for a neighborhood business district.
"What we tried to do was take the input from the town's people, we tried to take examples from the towns around us that had multiple commercial zones," said McHugh, who emphasized a pressing need to do something with the property rather than let it decay.
The board provided a handout to attendees listing all the possible uses by right and by special permit for the new zoning district. McHugh went through each of the 90 uses, comparing each to existing commercial zoning use.
"You can think of all sorts of uses for the current building there. But what scares me when I look down this list, I see fast food and retail and a lot of things that aren't about repurposing the current building," said Mark Ham of 85 Shirley St.
"We're not creating a zone for Peter Fitz," said McHugh.
"This zone is being driven by the fact that there's a potential change of hands and responsibility," he said.
Scott Blackburn of Jewett Street asked about other inputs received by the board and challenged the extent of research performed by the board prior to publishing their proposed changes.
"Can you tell me the results of the land-use study committee that was proposed before you as a vehicle of analyzing exactly what we should be doing with this," asked Blackburn.
"As far as those words exactly, no. We've looked at the comprehensive plan as well as the master plan," said McHugh, who noted both plans suggested the use of the property for municipal purposes.
"Can you tell me the going square-foot rent at the present time for commercial space in town," asked Blackburn.
"I cannot," said McHugh.
"Can you tell me the net effect of throwing 40,000 square foot of commercial space on the town of Pepperell business and the net effect on all of the present landlords and commercial space owners considering they are at or about a capacity of 50 percent? That was a number that was thrown at you by myself having done a study on it and also verified by a Realtor present at the last hearing as to what the vacancy rate was for commercial space in the town of Pepperell last fall. Has that changed significantly," asked Blackburn.
"I don't believe that it has," said McHugh.
"I am frustrated, however, that we asked you to please put together a committee of people from across the town who were interested in this issue to look at what uses we as a town would want in that area and what we wouldn't want," said Diane Carr of 30 Elm St.
"It still allows several uses that I believe are poor choices for the dead center of town and our main crossroads," she said.
"If we are taking certain things out or things that are not appropriate, why wouldn't there be additional granularity to the zoning overlays so that there were some that were more appropriate," said Eric McCulley of Independence Way.
"As long as it's not already on the warrant, couldn't we take a few more months to have further discussions with you guys about this and bring it at a later time with a more refined district," asked Diane Carr.
"The Planning Board meets twice a month every month. It's so nice to see everybody at this hearing. But if you wanna know what's going on at the Planning Board, please everybody come to our meetings. We love your input. You're right it should be all ironed by now, but since we're doing it on our own and we don't see any of you there then," said Commissioner Anna MacDonald.
MacDonald challenged Carr's assertion that the rezoning discussions haven't been on the Planning Board agendas.
"It's been on our agenda for so long I keep praying you'll take it off," said MacDonald.
Other articles that may appear on the warrant include setbacks for the new neighborhood business district and a provision that would prevent location of a marijuana medical treatment center in the town.
The board also heard from Attorney Melissa Robins regarding a proposed rezoning of a portion of 43 Nashua Road from recreational-residence to industrial. Robbins, representing KB properties LLC and William Mitchell, explained that the triangular-shaped property was adjacent to the entrance to Lomar Park. Any change would require a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting.
Scott Blackburn reminded the board that the zoning of portions of some Lomar properties as recreational-residence along Nashua Road was designed to create a buffer for the residences abutting the park. No reason was given by Robbins for the change request.