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Some residents want more business and services in Wakefield

August 27, 2009
WAKEFIELD — The planning board hosted a public forum on Aug. 13 on the town's master plan update, and this time the session was held at the East Wakefield Fire Station to encourage attendance from beyond the confines of town hall.

The strategy worked, as approximately 17 residents, including some fresh faces, including one seasonal resident and planning professional who read about the meeting in the newspaper, attended the session. The town's master plan provides a roadmap for future land use goals and aspirations, and includes chapters on land use, natural resources, natural hazards, community facilities and cultural and historic resources.

Several residents spoke strongly in favor of encouraging business, industry and services to locate in Wakefield. And the wish list of businesses included additional restaurants – more food choices, period – a chain supermarket, a car wash and most of all, a drugstore.

"I think the tide is headed towards looking for more commercial development," said Tom Lavoie, a former Wakefield Area Chamber of Commerce board member and local businessman.

"We need a pharmacy in this town, an affordable grocery store in town where we can afford to go grocery shopping without going to Rochester for $4 a gallon for gas. I think we need a car wash and there is nothing in the zoning ordinance allowing a car wash... I think we need more restaurants and food choices in town. There's nothing in town," said Lavoie, adding that perhaps it was time for the town to consider rezoning a portion of Route 16. He said there were three vacant restaurants, two vacant gas stations and empty office space in town. "It doesn't seem to be viable in the town – you need the visibility and traffic of Route 16 to be successful.

"A new business cannot thrive just on this town's population, that they need exposure on Route 16 to survive," he said, adding that not one startup has survived in town and that businesses have come and gone from the Garvin Building downtown.

"You should re-write zoning to be business friendly." He also advocated that the board reconsider allowing drive-through restaurants and franchises because they are proven business models. "We're in 2009 – not 1899," Lavoie added. A chain restaurant in town could provide jobs for teenagers and more food choices for residents as well as tourists. Businesses could also add to the town's tax base, he said.

Planning Board chair Rod Cools countered that he didn't feel the board was opposed to business at all. Attempts to re-zone a portion of Route 16 at Route 109 on the Brookfield side as "Commercial" failed when voters rejected a petitioned warrant article. The planning board approved the commercial development on Route 16 of a supermarket/pharmacy and a medical building. While the medical building – White Mt. Medical Center, a department of Frisbie Memorial Hospital – is thriving, the slumping economy has stalled efforts to attract a chain supermarket and drug store to the site. Cools said that a number of years ago, he served on a "work committee" to attract business and jobs to Wakefield. "For many years this town had a work committee that was unable to bring businesses into town because there was no reason for businesses to come here. There has been talk lately of seeing if we can get the town to do things like defraying taxes, which some people are opposed to and some are not. I don't want anyone to feel this board is opposed to business – we're not. We tried two years ago to get a change of zoning on 16 and it failed; we tried the year before that by private petition. The planning board currently has a different attitude than it had three years ago. I can attest to that. Difference now is getting the town to look at it the way the town needs to look at it."

"It's a fence we're walking on but nobody knows which side they want to be on."

Everything we do has to be approved by the town, he added.

Resident Mary Richards added that the medical building on Route 16 was moving along very quickly, with a nurse practitioner, Jean Ball, added to the staff. She recently spoke to Ball and asked if Frisbie could urge a pharmacy to come to the site. "It would be perfect," said Richards. "If everybody would call Frisbie and say, 'how about it.' We've got the land," she said.

Cools replied that first they would have to get a pharmacy to agree to come into town. The work committee worked hard to attract a pharmacy and every one of them said 'no.' Lavoie said that pharmacies want an "anchor" store. Planning Board member Al Huntoon said that the other possibility was that the supermarket would have included a pharmacy. Cools said they've got to get somebody to buy in to the developed site. The approval is there – we just have to get somebody to buy into it and that's been the headache."

Another resident, Barry Chick, asked if it was true that the bulk of Wakefield's population was seasonal. Lavoie said you couldn't have a successful business in town depend just upon the town's population (around 5,000) unless you're an old anchor business in town like the Poor People's Pub or Longmeadow Hardware store. Chick said he knows that in January and February, the town is "just dead."

Resident Relf Fogg asked if the town would be opposed to sports shops or hobby shops. "Absolutely not," said Cools. "The only business we've talked about that we'd oppose is adult bookstores," he added.

Lavoie said there is a "desperate need for a car wash" in town but nothing in the ordinance allows it. There was discussion regarding protection of the large water acquifer and the limits of the village's water district and resources. But then Tom Keene from the audience said his son's company designs new car washes with artesian wells that collect water from reverse osmosis and don't require connection into the community water system. Several sites suggested for a car wash included Miss Wakefield's Diner and the old Crowell's garage site on Route 16. Town Planner Kathy Menici noted the problem the town has is that its not a permitted use on the permitted table of uses in the ordinance, but that could be amended to include that use then define the districts in which it could be allowed. She said an amendment to the zoning ordinance could be prepared this fall. "We do have capacity issues with both town water and sewer," she added.

Dave Mankus, a planning board alternate, said a petitioned warrant article last year sought to repeal Article 34 of the town's zoning ordinance. [The article states any use not listed as permitted in the ordinance or site plan review regulations is prohibited.]

Mankus used the car wash as an example of a use that was not listed as a permitted use.

"Fear raised its head and our town attorney argued against (abolishing) Article 34 with the argument which has been used until its been worn out that if you don't have the article you can have adult bookstores. I did some research and in fact if you allow retail you allow bookstores, you can't exclude adult bookstores. I made the point at candidate's night that Article 34 may exclude a lot of good businesses and it's then the scare tactic of the adult bookstore comes up every time you defeat it. The reality is we can have McDonald's, drive-ins, and businesses that expand the tax base. The key is they have to be designed right," he said, adding that Freeport in particular had franchise restaurants that blend in nicely with the community.

"We have a zoning ordinance that exists on a fear of the unknown," he said.

Menici said that there is nothing in the ordinance that

"Franchises are not excluded," countered Menici. "A franchise business can come in. What is prohibited is the franchise architecture, which is exactly what you are talking about up in Freeport. Mankus said he'd like to see a Ruby Tuesday in town. "If there was one of those on Route 16 I think it would do very well," he said. "It would harvest the traffic that goes by."

One issue that Menici brought up was that Route 16 was a state limited access highway, where the state Department of Transportation actually went out and purchased the land for its 10-year transportation plan. She said the Route 16 corridor was a difficult terrain to develop, with steep slopes, wetlands and limited access.

Déjΰ vu

Wakefield's population may have risen 295 percent from 1960 to 2008, according to data distributed at the forum, but as Pam Judge noted, some things don't change.

Judge said she's been involved in community discussions about business for 30 years. "The same things come up, that we need more businesses and industry in town, but there's never been a way to get them to come to Wakefield. There aren't incentives to get big business. Every time the discussion comes up its at a time where the economy is like it is today; its very hard to get the types of businesses we've been talking about to move to Wakefield," she said. "It's a great place to live – we all know that – but these big companies, only about two percent nationwide move in a year. We've tried tax incentives; there's no community water system that's going to help these people. We've talked about the same things on Route 16. Those limited accesses have been in place since the 1950s, it's not something new. I think we have the same discussion. I think we should think about things that will help the existing businesses grow because every time we do a survey, that's what people want," she said. There are things people want in the community but they also want to protect the rural character of the town, she said. Why not expand upon what's here already. She said there was one company willing to locate here in the early 90s and land was set aside and rezoned, and the deal fell through. She said at town meeting back then, she couldn't get any support to give the business an incentive to come to town.

"We're in an economy now where businesses are cutting back" said Judge.

Liz Swenson, a seasonal resident who lives on Great East Lake, spoke at length about planning a downtown community that retains a sense of identity. She described downtown Sanbornville as "missing some teeth" in the streetscape downtown, with some businesses staggered and others fronted by blacktop. She said the town could develop design guidelines for new businesses and that could be a path for Sanbornville to strengthen its identity.

Residents who were unable to attend this session will get another opportunity to speak up about the town's master plan. The next Master Plan Public Forum will be held on Sept. 10 at the Wakefield Town Hall

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