Salem proposal wilts under scrutiny of public hearing

Salem - Public reaction to the idea of a "village center district" has the town's planning and zoning commissioners rethinking the project.

Joe Duncan, who with his wife Anne runs the Salem Herbfarm - which lies within the proposed district's boundaries - struck to the heart of residents' concerns with one simple question.

"What do you have in mind?" he asked the commission at a public hearing on Tuesday night. He challenged them to "fast-forward this thing" and consider what it might look like several years down the road if it were wildly successful.

The district, centered around the Town Hall and school on Route 85, would be zoned to allow business development and would include loosely defined architectural standards for new construction. The plan has been under consideration in various forms since 2002.

On Tuesday, several residents who live within the district expressed confusion and frustration with the proposed regulations, which they said are vague. Others questioned the idea of businesses moving into the mostly residential area, or asked for more details on the philosophy behind the proposal. Planning & Zoning Commission member David Bingham explained to residents the vision that prompted the proposed zoning changes.

The idea began with the economic development commission looking for ways to improve the business climate, Bingham said. Encouraging a traditional New England village with people living upstairs from their small businesses seemed to be an answer that fit the character of Salem, he said.

The commission hopes to promote mixed-use development, he said, and the architectural guidelines were designed to "give the sense you're in a New England village."

Residents seemed primarily concerned about the vagueness of the regulations - posted on the town's website - which are worded "very generally and abstractly," said Kelly Sanders, who lives with her mother within the proposed district's boundaries.

The architectural guidelines, for instance, state that "new buildings … shall be of such character as to harmonize with the neighborhood." Some acceptable architectural styles are listed, but no clear rules are outlined.

Sue Spang, who serves as the administrative assistant for the Planning and Zoning Commission and has watched the village center discussion evolve over the past few months, expressed similar reservations.

Spang, whose property borders the proposed district, said she was concerned with the arbitrary nature of the regulations and architectural standards. She also wasn't sure about the idea of opening the whole area to business development.

"I can't imagine a theater going in next to me. (Or) a big restaurant," she said.

Richard Amato, chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission, said the reason the guidelines are so general is to allow flexibility on the landowner's side. The district is meant not to encourage big business but "to enable small business to grow in a village setting," Bingham said.

Some residents spoke favorably of the proposal.

"Change comes hard sometimes," Andy Frausini said. Recalling the controversial installation of a sidewalk a few years ago, he added, "I love seeing people strolling down the sidewalk now."

Some public officials raised specific concerns with the district's proposed borders. Board of Education Chairman Stephen Buck said the board would prefer that the school be left out of the district, or that the regulations include some exceptions for that building.

The school has additions that were built during several different time periods, leading to a number of different architectural styles. Recent renovations have made it more uniform in appearance, Buck said, and taxpayers shouldn't be asked to pay additional money to make sure it meets the architectural standards of the proposed village district.

The public hearing became tense at times. One resident asked for a show of hands during his comment. After several exchanges in which Amato insisted that no voting was allowed at the hearing, Amato asked the resident to sit down or be escorted from the building.

Republican Town Committee chairman and Board of Selectmen candidate Ed Chmielewski stood up for the resident, telling Amato, "It's not a vote. It's a straw poll." But Amato would not to allow such a poll at the meeting.

The commission decided to continue to review the regulations. If they make changes, they will have to hold another public hearing before sending the proposal to referendum.

Bingham said he understands that people are concerned about their neighborhood changing, but he thinks the change would be positive.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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