At the town meeting on Tuesday, May 9, the town of Ayer voted to amend its zoning bylaws to create a health care services district in the 40 acres encompassing the Nashoba Valley Medical Center currently owned by Essent health care. I argued against the article and I continue to believe it is a decision that will have negative consequences for the town and the region for years to come. Those negative consequences include environmental impact, traffic, regional access to health care, negative business impact to downtown Ayer, and undercutting the justification for maintaining the train station in its current location.
I would now like to comment briefly on the conduct of the debate. First, it is unfortunate that some citizens of Ayer saw fit to resort to cheap parliamentary maneuvering in order to move the article forward and thereby bring to a vote an important article on a night when the town meeting was sparsely attended. Given that Essent health care and some citizens of the town have been planning this amendment for months, if not years, I can’t help but wonder why they were apprehensive about having the article undergo the broadest possible discussion in front of the largest number of voters possible. If those who voted in the affirmative on the article were confident and well-informed about the merits of their case, they should not have feared leaving the article in the position it was assigned.
Second, in March 2005 the Comprehensive Implementation Plan (CIP) was finalized. It is a document into which a lot of time, energy and money were obviously invested. The expansion of NVMC on its current site is contraindicated by many of the most important goals and recommendations in that document. I will not list them here as the document is available at www.ayer.ma.us/Downloads/AyerComprehensivePlan2005-Rev.pdf, but I was struck by the fact that none of that document’s authors or contributors saw fit to argue that those goals and recommendations were worth being adhered to. Even if, on balance, the authors felt the zoning bylaw should be changed, at the very least they ought to have made reference to the document and sought to retain as much of its integrity as possible. Their failure to do so calls into serious question the document as a whole, the commitment of its authors to its goals, and the willingness of the town to commit to its future in a planned, orderly and coherent fashion.
And finally, at the start of the debate, Essent’s attorney, a citizen of Ayer, asked that the acting CEO of NVMC, a citizen of Littleton, be allowed to address the meeting in order to explain and advocate for the corporation’s position. I was aware at that time that unanimous consent of the voters present was required for a non-citizen to address the meeting. I did not object because I felt that, in the interests of fair play and constructive debate, it was good that the voters have the greatest amount of information possible. Near the end of the debate a citizen of Groton, I think, attempted to address the assembly. Clearly, citizens of Groton, as co-founders of the original hospital, as our neighbors, and as abutters who will be significantly affected by the zoning change, have important and legitimate concerns that should have been heard. Yet, the town quickly shouted him down and prevented him from addressing the assembly. The perspective of those citizens who did not allow him to speak does not bode well for this town, this region, or by extension, this nation.