HARVARD — According to a recent survey, a majority of residents who live near the Ayer Road commercial district would like to see some new businesses there, but they also have concerns about traffic, noise and maintaining Harvard’s rural character.
Those issues were raised during a November survey by the town’s Economic Development Analysis Team (EDAT), which is evaluating the development potential of Ayer Road, with the possibility of making recommendations at the next Annual Town Meeting.
The survey effort was headed up by EDAT member Michelle Catalina, who said a key result was that most neighbors of the commercial district favor moderate growth there, something that was also suggested by a similar survey that was distributed at Town Meeting.
“EDAT was not particularly surprised by the survey results,” she said. “While it showed that most people are willing to have limited development, they moved to Harvard for the rural aspects of town.”
Specifically, 65 percent of the 187 households surveyed said they’d accept limited commercial development on Ayer Road to provide some tax relief, but they didn’t want to see the area fully developed.
While those results were comparable with the Town Meeting survey, Catalina noted that there was noticeably less support in the more recent survey for the notion of fully developing the commercial district, with only 21 percent supporting that scenario, compared with 43 percent at Town Meeting.
Elsewhere, 96 households listed traffic safety as a concern, followed by 56 concerned about preserving rural character, and 35 leery of noise.
Conversely, just under 70 percent of respondents supported the idea of a grocery store on Ayer Road, followed by 66 percent supporting a locally owned restaurant, and 58 percent desiring a pharmacy.
In the big picture, Catalina said evaluating the feasibility of those suggestions in Harvard’s commercial district is a key part of EDAT’s mission. Using a grocery store as an example, she noted the commercial district has a size limit of 30,000 square feet, saying EDAT is looking to see if that is a limiting factor in the town’s ability to attract such operations. That said, Catalina said EDAT wants businesses that bring high tax revenue, saying big box retail doesn’t fit that bill.
Two major limiting factors that have already been identified are the lack of water and sewer service in the commercial district, which makes much of that area essentially undevelopable, said Catalina. She added EDAT is working to get numbers on what it would cost to bring those services to the commercial district, so it can determine if those are feasible scenarios that would yield a net benefit for local taxpayers.
Given that zoning changes or expanded utilities would require Town Meeting votes, Catalina said it made sense for EDAT to connect with commercial district neighbors to get them involved with the process.
“The survey was not just to get their opinion. It’s also to let them know this is going on and to get their input,” she said.
“If EDAT decides these things in a bubble and doesn’t approach the residents who will vote on these things, we could end up doing a lot of work and not getting anything done,” she said, at another point.
A Myrick Lane resident and commercial district neighbor herself, Catalina said she spent the better part of a month conducing the survey, compiling over 200 e-mail contacts and doing a mass mailing to reach the remainder of households. She said the survey was distributed only to households that are north of Route 2 and in the general area of Ayer Road, which excluded relatively remote byways such as Littleton Road and Old Littleton Road.
The survey garnered 187 responses — or just over half the households in the target area. Having surveyed Harvard on several occasions in the past, EDAT member Rick Maiore termed as a significant turnout.
“Usually a return of somewhere close to 10 percent is almost considered statistically as if it was 100 percent, because what usually happens is that all interested people will answer one way or another, while the people who are disinterested will generally split 50-50,” he said.
That said, Maiore thought the results showed support for seeking some additional commercial tax revenue, but there also revealed “very sensitive” areas of concern that EDAT needs to be aware of.
At this point, he said EDAT’s focus is on determining what would be feasible and if the infrastructure and service costs of developing Ayer Road make encouraging development there a net-gain proposal for the town, adding that answer likely won’t be clear until at least February.
“What we’re trying to answer is the question of whether this would result in additional revenue or services for the town, if we restructure the zoning…to allow for more commercial development.”
The EDAT survey results are available on the town Web site. The survey comments have not been posted yet, but Catalina said they would be at some point in the future.