Our town, in spite of the recent work of the Master Plan Committee, seems to be struggling with a unified vision of the future of Pepperell.
Following this story, as it has developed inside Town Hall, reveals to me, that we have a conservation minded group of folks and a business minded group of folks who are working for opposite futures. The conservationist wishes are to retain the rural quality of town, hold onto our remaining open farm and forest lands, keep taxes down by avoiding building out and gentrifying our town, and they are dedicated to fighting climate change and wish to propose policiesto win that battle. The business minded folks worry about our ability to pay increasing property taxes for increasing municipal services demanded by the public and they want more local businesses to share our tax responsibilities and to serve our families.
I wish to be a strong advocate on the environmental/conservationist side of this struggle. Our planning board has developed a proposed by-law, "Adaptive Reuse Overlay District". (AROD). This by law would allow owners of municipal, church, community organization buildings, and historic home properties to apply for a special permit allowing the owner to open a business in these often residential locations. A list of fifteen allowed uses at these locations include such businesses as barber shops, business offices, restaurants, lodgings and more. AROD, as an overlay district would apply to the entire area of Pepperell, boundary to boundary. Our town planner, Jenny Gingras, explained to me that the municipal benefit is to prevent existing, older buildings to fall into disrepair, leading to their demolition. Pepperell would lose it's historical assets should that happen. Planning Board members have taken the position that Pepperell needs more businesses to serve the public and to share in supporting our property tax base. While I applaud looking ahead and taking preventative measures to ensure retaining our historical homes and buildings, I would prefer to discuss an historical home preservation by-law. Also, looking around our town, I don't see historical homes in a state of neglect or threat of demolition. The idea that increasing business properties will lower property taxes is just not demonstrated in our neighboring towns that have pursued that same course. Businesses in this town do not pay a higher property rate. To the contrary, more building development in every case, Littleton, Westford, Chelmsford, and others, led to higher property taxes, creating housing cost problems for middle and low and fixed income families. More pointedly, Pepperell has seen a significant development spurt and the corresponding raising of property values and the increase in taxes we must pay. Further, as AROD Special Permits are sought and given to property owners we will have taken a giant step towards turning our semi rural community into a built out commercial town, with businesses dotting our town and residents moving to other communities they came to Pepperell for, a quiet, friendly, small town with scattered wildlife, river, forest and farm landscapes.
The AROD bylaw interest had, in it's origins, a welcome goal: Allowing small business uses in our Peter Fitzpatrick School. The "Fitz" is currently in a residential zone and therefor limited to "educational" uses. By allowing a zoning change for the Fitz to commercial zoning, we can look forward to the development of a shared commercial kitchen and food hub in the school kitchen, a great resource to area farmers and consumers. Also, it provides the Peter Fitzpatrick School collaborative greater range in finding an anchor tenant to financially support the arts and education programs the community seeks. AROD is best limited to the school property and two adjoining properties.
What worries me most is our continuing disregard for the consequences of building more homes and their fossil fuel current harm to our environment and the future increasing harms we are burdening our children's lives with. I understand that the existential threat we have created with our fossil fuel economy is hard for us to face and take action on. But we must. There's no moral argument to ignore the tragedy we have created.
We are currently, in Pepperell, building problems, not solutions.
Our Master plan appears to have hidden in it, an inherent conflict. There are those that argue it directs widespread residential and commercial growth and those that argue the opposite, sustainability and preservation of our natural assets.
Please attend the AROD informational virtual meeting scheduled for February 3rd at 7pm, found on our town web site, and share your opinion on this proposed by-law. The AROD draft document may be viewed on the Town of Pepperell web site under "Adaptive Reuse Article"- we want to hear from you!