PEPPERELL — After a “contentious” vote at Town Meeting in May, an article was adopted to allow for the reuse of certain unused or underutilized municipal and community buildings in Pepperell.
As part of the new “Adaptive Reuse of Significant Structures” bylaw, a special permit can now allow certain structures to be used beyond their original or intended purpose. Should they meet specific criteria, buildings could be adapted for almost any use — housing, commercial, co-worker spaces, makerspaces, etc. — or multiple uses, regardless of their current zoning.
Town Planner Jenny Gingras and Craig Hansen, president of the Fitzpatrick Collaborative, said the bylaw could prove crucial to the future of Pepperell as it looks to grow, but also maintain an identity.
“It’s just nice to have more options,” Gingras said. “You’re incentivizing developers to come in and work with existing structures, many of which are sentimental to Pepperell but, otherwise, might be torn down.”
“This is critical to our future at The Fitz,” Hansen said. “And I think it could prove similar for a lot of different places here in Pepperell.”
Developers that intend to make use of the new special permit bylaw are required to submit an application and provide the town with a plan for whichever structure they hope to adapt. After a thorough review, both from the Historical Commission and Planning Board, a permit can be granted.
Gingras stressed that the permit would remain subject to Pepperell’s typical review process and that any developer would be required to wait 20 days for any appeal of the decision before work could begin.
According to Gingras, the original warrant article was developed almost exclusively with The Fitz — a community center located within the former Peter Fitzpatrick School — in mind. Later, it was expanded to include the entire town.
After “significant pushback” over fears of change, Gingras said she did what she could to assuage those fears and make the purpose of the article clear.
“It started with The Fitz,” she said. “But it touched on so many things in the town’s master plan — historic preservation, reuse — it just made sense to expand it.”
“A lot of people, they didn’t want to see the town’s rural character change. So I tried to make it clear that the Planning Board had to look at very specific criteria and that there couldn’t be any significant exterior dimensional changes unless it had to do with (Americans with Disabilities Act) access,” she said.
Once an application is approved, Hansen said the plan is to use the permit as a means to “diversify” operations at The Fitz. He referred specifically to a potential photography studio and artistic or other creative spaces as potential avenues while Evelyn Bagley, a secretary at The Fitz, said there was “plenty of community interest” in a shared office space.
“This permit will just make everything significantly easier for us,” Hansen said. “It would allow us to broaden our use and diversify so we could do as much as we possibly can for the community.”
Hansen also stressed the permit’s role in The Fitz’s rebound from the pandemic.
“COVID has been hard on a lot of places — and a lot of people still aren’t comfortable going out and being in a room with a bunch of other people,” he said. “So we’ve been looking at other ways to supplement what we’re trying to do here — and this permit can do exactly that.”
“It just opens us up to a lot of possibilities,” he said.
Beyond The Fitz, Gingras said there has been plenty of interest in the new permit but, as of now, no other applications have been submitted. Whatever interest it may receive going forward, both Gingras and Hansen shared their excitement over the article’s passing and what it could mean to the future of Pepperell.
“Now, a lot of these buildings will stay intact, which is the important thing,” Gingras said. “A lot of these buildings would just be replaced with something more ‘modern’ that would take away from the town’s character — and nobody wants that.”
“Now we can promote and support more of the local arts and education-type programming that we’ve been looking for,” Hansen said. “It’s generating money back to the town, it’s preserving buildings — that ‘image’ of the town — and it’s providing services to the community. Why wouldn’t you want that?”