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HARVARD — The Master Plan applecart won’t be upset this year, although Selectman Bill Johnson’s alternative manifesto seemed to aim in that direction.

When Johnson presented his vision at the Aug. 2 selectmen’s meeting, Planning Board Chairman Kara Minar was clearly displeased.

Johnson said the long-range picture is too complex for the Master Plan process as it stands and for which her board is responsible. He called for an approach that is “different than the way we have done it in the past.”

For starters, Johnson proposed redirecting $35,000 previously approved at Town Meeting for the Planning Board to pay a consultant so the town can employ a part-time professional planner instead.

Rather than hire a consultant “every few years,” creating the staff position would provide long-term, value-added benefit to the town, Johnson posited.


Challenges he cited that call for an on-board planner included development of the Ayer Road commercial district and staying ahead of state affordable-housing mandates. At the same time, the town values open space, wants to protect natural resources and needs to find new sources of drinking water, he said.

Minar, however, felt Johnson should have consulted her board before going public.

“We support any good idea,” she said. “But we would have liked” advance notice.

She seemed particularly irked by his proposal to ask voters at the Aug. 18 Special Town Meeting for permission to use that $35,000.

Voters appropriated the money for its stated purpose, and to “re-purpose” it “suggests they made a bad decision,” she said.

The idea of hiring a planner has come up before, she said, but in her view, the Master Plan process is effective and the consultant worth the cost.

“We get $35,000 for a consultant to gather “credible data,” not just to facilitate visioning sessions, she said.

She also reminded selectmen that the Planning Board knows how to do its job.

An elected body of well-qualified volunteers, including civil engineers, analysts, a land-use lawyer and other professionals, they have “served well,” she said. Besides, the Master Plan is their purview, legally as well as historically.

“It’s our responsibility to create a master Plan,” Minar said, citing Massachusetts General Laws. The law outlines the Master Plan process “as a basis for decision-making,” she said. “The “democratic process is a big part of it.”

The law sets out nine “mandated elements” for the plan, she continued, including items Johnson listed as key challenges, such as economic development and affordable housing.

She also debunked the notion that a professional planner could do it all.

It would it be hard to “equate” tasks the consultant performs with “any single planner’s skill set,” Minar said.

Citing the Planning Board’s track record, she said 80 percent of the 2002 Master Plan has been implemented, including the new Hildreth Elementary School playground.

“Yes, there are outstanding issues, but it’s a public process,” she said.

Master Plan Steering Committee member Al Coombs said Johnson’s plan makes sense in theory, but had not been “vetted” yet.

“This is new information,” he said.

He didn’t want the consultant money re-routed, either. But he sided with Johnson about hiring a professional planner to deal with zoning and housing issues.

With town sewer in place, minimum acreage zoning requirements may be downsized, for example, and the town could face challenges when the real-estate market recovers.

“The need to hire a planner is critical and has been for some time,” Coombs said. “But that $35,000 isn’t the place to look.”

MPSC member Joe Hutchinson said Devens is another pressing issue. He, too, favored hiring a professional planner, but in addition to, not instead of, the consultant.

The Master Plan visioning sessions are critical, he said.

“We should engage at all levels.”

Minar said the Planning Board was working on an RFP for a consultant to send out soon.

Selectman Ron Ricci suggested a negotiable alternative to the either-or scenario. “Maybe the town planner would be someone who helps all the boards, committees, consultants and citizens work together,” he said. “The right thing might be somewhere in between.”

Selectman Tim Clark said the position should “support, not supplant” the Planning Board’s efforts. “Maybe this is the year to begin talking about it.”

Having expressed reluctance to disrupt the Planning Board’s “kitchen,” Chairman Marie Sobalvarro halted what had become an academic discussion.

“This has been an interesting discussion,” she said. But it was time to let the other board “get on with their work.”

With a substantial agenda still ahead of them, the same was true for the selectmen.

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