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Survey gives a favorable view of Shirley

SHIRLEY — Rural character and the affordability of housing were the two top reasons people chose to live in Shirley, according to a majority of the residents and business owners responding to a recent town-wide survey.

Conducted by the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission as part of the town’s 10-year update of its Master Plan, the survey was sent to every residence and business in town in August and was posted on the town website. There were 353 responses.

MRPC’s John Hume presented the Master Plan Survey results to selectmen recently.

Although the survey’s response rate — about 10 percent based on 3,000 households, plus the businesses — was not overwhelming, it wasn’t bad, all things considered. Compare it to Town Meeting, for example. A typical turnout for Annual Town Meeting might be fewer than 300 people, unless there’s a hot button issue on the warrant.

The Master Plan process isn’t the kind of effort that generally draws a crowd, but the state considers it a must-do for every community and the document it produces can provide town planners with a road map for the next decade.

MRPC is providing assistance to the Town of Shirley in its current Master Plan process, including public input as a required element. Although the town contracts with MRPC for most of its work, the survey was done at no cost to the town, paid for with a District Local Technical Assistance Program (DLTA) grant.

Public input also included a workshop-style public forum earlier this year in which people participated in facilitated group discussions about the town’s best features and most pressing challenges and envisioned its future. The outcome of that session helped frame the survey, Hume said.

Survey questions covered topics such as land use, zoning, housing, economic development, open space, recreation, services and facilities and growth.

Most respondents — nearly 96 percent — were residents. Less than 5 percent were business owners, all of whom were residents as well. Most had lived in town for 20 years or more, while very few — 4 percent — were newcomers.

Age groups surveyed ranged from 18 to 74 and above, with more than 45 percent in the mid range, ages 30-44.

Survey highlights:

* On the plus side, in addition to its rural character and reasonably-priced housing, the town’s proximity to highways was another favorable feature cited in the survey, along with commuter rail access, convenience to work and family ties.

* On the minus side, more than half of respondents cited municipal finances as the town’s top challenge, while 47 percent said it was the school system. Next on the list of challenges was the tax rate, (now over $17 per thousand in assessed property value) followed by maintaining community character and the condition of roads and sidewalks.

* Housing: Nearly 35 percent of respondents said Shirley already had enough housing, while 30 percent said the town needs elderly housing. The need for more single-family homes was next on the list at 26 percent, followed by 34 percent who thought the town should add assisted living options for seniors. (There are none in town now, now, but an assisted living facility is on the drawing board as part of a new mixed use development slated for the Shirley area of Devens.)

* Zoning: Most respondents — 37 percent — were against zoning changes to allow more low or moderate income housing in town, new construction or by converting existing buildings. However, 32 percent of respondents liked the idea and 29 percent were unsure.

* Renewable Energy: A whopping 80.77 percent of respondents favored solar as a renewable energy source, followed by wind and geothermal. A few — 13 percent — wanted none of the above.

* Commercial/Industrial Development: Asked about potential benefits of more commercial or industrial development, most respondents said tax revenue. Next on the list were jobs, shopping and other services, in that order. Disadvantages were traffic, changing the town’s character, environmental damage and loss of open space.

Assuming people want such development, where should it go? Most said Route 2A/Great Road, where a zoning change proposal aimed at that goal was recently defeated at Town Meeting, for the second time. Next best place was Shirley Village, respondents said, followed by Lancaster Road, another target for rezoning that Town Meeting derailed.

* Economic Development Types: Most people favored a grocery store, a pharmacy, restaurants and professional offices. Runners up included R&D and healthcare facilities, coffee shop, light manufacturing, biotech, retail and farming.

* Town Offices: Asked if they were satisfied with access to town services and the Town Offices, most respondents — 75 percent — said they were satisfied. Only a few — 11 percent — were not, while 13 percent were not sure.

The survey also attempted to gauge citizen satisfaction in other areas, including cell phone coverage, Internet service, trash and recycling services and the Water District, which earned high marks, with 64 percent stating they were “very satisfied.”

Hume noted that town water — both the district’s performance and the water quality — got high marks at the public forum, too.

The multi-page document — complete with more telling details, including departmental service ratings — is available at Town Offices and the library.

It will also be posted on the town website,