HARVARD — The commercial plaza at 285 Ayer Road, home of a bank, pizza restaurant and other small enterprises, sparked controversy when its owner, Bob Hirsch, decided to open a wine and beer package store called the Vineyard in one of the units there. He applied for one of three targeted liquor licenses in town.
About the same time, the owner of the General Store, at 1 Still River Road in the town center, also applied for a beer and wine package store license.
Both package stores are now in business.
The public hearings ran concurrently earlier this year. Both licenses were granted, with conditions. But the Vineyard application stirred up more angst.
During the hearing process, Selectman Tim Clark launched a solo investigation into the property’s past, discovering gaps in septic system records that he said should be cleared up before moving forward. But the town Board of Health later said those issues were resolved.
Selectman Marie Sobalvarro was concerned about poor lighting in the parking lot.
A neighborhood couple spoke against the application, questioning the need for a new package store in the area. They noted the poor condition of the plaza and two vacant residential properties flanking it, businesses also owned by Hirsch.
A handful of other residents later sent e-mails and letters opposing the application; some came in after the public-input portion of the hearing had closed. Citing a story in the Harvard Press that mistakenly stated otherwise, and for other reasons, Clark argued to reopen it. Town Counsel Mark Lanza said that was not necessary, legally. The board compromised, reading the correspondence into the record for its deliberations.
Hirsch has since fixed up the plaza and to date has met all conditions attached to the license, except one. He has installed security cameras, improved exterior lighting and is working with the building commissioner to relocate the sign, which does not comply with bylaws as it stands.
Now, Hirsch has filed an application with the Planning Board to modify the site plan.
When the Planning Board discussed the application, Clark showed up and offered input, including a letter that delves into liquor license issues he considers unresolved. Having reviewed the site plan application with an eye to those issues, he urged the other board to review documents to get an overview of what’s wrong with the site.
For example, his letter cites an August, 2005 Planning Board decision to modify the bank site in which recommendations to the applicant (bank) relate to lighting, drainage, signage, landscaping and jersey barriers in the plaza parking lot. He said minutes from that meeting and the decision indicate site “deficiencies” that may still exist.
“I do not believe the applicant has provided a plan to bring the site into complete compliance with the bylaws,” he said in the letter.
A condition of the liquor license states that the free-standing sign, in place for a number of years, must be moved to comply with current bylaws and that the building commissioner must notify selectmen when it’s done.
“We have received no updates” attesting to that, Clark wrote.
Planning Board Chairman Joseph Sudol found the “we” in that statement unsettling. He later called Clark’s actions into question at the Aug. 17 Selectmen’s meeting.
“This is a sticky issue,” Sudol said, but he came to find out if Clark (identified only as a selectman) acted on his own or spoke for the board and to “ensure” there was no attempt by selectmen to influence Planning Board decisions.
“To my knowledge, we were not involved,” said Chairman Peter Warren. He proposed putting the issue on the next agenda for discussion.
Clark said he was the selectman Sudol referred to and defended his right to speak. “I can participate in any public hearing,” he said.
But Sudol said there was no public hearing.
“We are not required to accept public input on this application,” he said.
Handing the board a copy of Clark’s letter, he said signing it “Selectman and Planning Board Chair” implied official status.
Clark’s letter lists items he urged the Planning Board to “examine carefully” in the modified site plan of July, 1979, including driveway access, roadside site signage, parking layout and location of exterior lights.
“To my knowledge, the site is not in compliance,” he wrote.
“I think it was inappropriate,” Sudol said of the letter, and Clark’s visit “created chaos on the board.”
Clark said he’d simply shared information the selectmen received. He called Sudol’s comments “troublesome.”
Warren put a stop to the exchange. The board would take up the matter at the next meeting, he said.
Sudol later said Clark “jumped into” the Planning Board discussion with a “dissertation” on issues raised at the liquor license hearings.
“That’s not what this was about,” he said.
His board was considering an application for site plan approval, he said. It was not a public hearing.
“I gave the letter back to him,” Sudol said. “I think it was inappropriate.”
When Clark wanted to speak, he was recognized “as a courtesy,” Sudol continued. But it caused discord. Siding with Clark, “another board member stopped the process,” he said, which has now been pushed back to Sept. 13, with legal counsel present.