John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and who teaches economics at Bentley University and UMass Lowell, contributes the following column.
The notorious 9 North Road property caused a huge controversy in Chelmsford. The recall failed, but townspeople seemed to send a clear message that they wanted to preserve open space in the center of town.
A much less well-known property on the outskirts of town will present Town Meeting Representatives with an opportunity to send a clear message. Warrant Article number 22 would confirm the town’s commitment to determine the best uses for a valuable piece of town-owned property. Article 23 would subvert the planning process and lock the town into a commitment before we even know what the options are.
The choice is not whether to preserve open space. The choice is whether to plan the future of Chelmsford. The choice is about the ability of our parents and children to live in Chelmsford. The choice is about whether or not we want to control where development occurs.
The property in question is commonly referred to as Oak Hill. It is 66 acres of town-owned property in North Chelmsford between Dunstable Road, Swain Road, Groton Road, and Route 3. The property ID is 11-4-1 if you want to check it out online at the town’s GIS mapping system .
If the property does not sound familiar, it may be because you have not read the 2010 Town of Chelmsford Master Plan. In recognition of the value of the property and the importance of using it properly, the Master Plan declares that the town should develop a distinct master plan for Oak Hill. The Master Plan issues this declaration in the Land Use and Zoning section, the Economic Development section, the Housing section, and the Open Space and Recreation section.
Preservation of open space is clearly an important consideration. The 2011 Open Space and Recreation Plan says, “The Town should conduct a detailed site analysis of Oak Hill culminating in a master plan emphasizing protection of open space and creation of recreation opportunities.” The latest Community Preservation Plan makes a “commitment to the Master Plan” by allocating money to conduct “property surveys and site feasibility studies where open space, recreation, affordable housing and or historic preservation efforts are being considered.” The plan specifies Oak Hill as a target property.
Town planners recognize both the desire for open space and a critical need for affordable housing. According to U.S. Census data, one out of every three homeowners in Chelmsford, and almost half of renters, are living in conditions that are unaffordable. One out of every five renters in Chelmsford is paying over half their income toward housing. As the population of the town ages, the problem will only get worse. We need a plan to address it.
Approval of Town Meeting Warrant Article number 23 would sabotage the planning process. It would effectively repeal the Master Plan clauses related to the property. It would bypass the site analysis requirement and “transfer care, custody, management and control” of Oak Hill to the Conservation Commission.
It makes perfect sense that the Conservation Commission would have an interest in this property. Any plans for Oak Hill should preserve most of it for conservation purposes. What does not make sense is a rush to judgment without collecting data to inform a decision as to how to take best advantage of one of the town’s most valuable resources.
You may have heard conjecture as to possible access roads, how much of the property could be developed (if any at all), and how much it would cost. It is all conjecture. No one knows the answers to these questions until we perform a study.
A study does not have to cost the Town of Chelmsford anything. A study that considers open space, historic preservation, and the potential for affordable housing hits all three targets for Community Preservation funds. Further, the town has already acquired funding from the state, and more grant money may be available.
If there is historic preservation required it would cost money. If the townspeople decide this property is appropriate for recreation space in North Chelmsford, it will cost money. Development of affordable housing on a limited footprint could provide the investment needed to support these other goals, while preserving Oak Hill primarily as open space.
Warrant article 23 would forego all these opportunities, and for all practical purposes be irreversible. The Town of Chelmsford may forever lose an opportunity to help address a dire need for affordable housing. Further, it may expose the town to the unwanted development we have been working hard to avoid.
I am currently serving on the town’s Affordable Housing Plan Committee. The Oak Hill property is an essential component of our draft plan. Our plan acknowledges and embraces conservation of open space, historic preservation, and the need for recreational facilities in the Oak Hill area. We also explicitly designate compatibility with other town planning documents as a criterion for assessing potential sites for affordable housing.
The committee initiated a grant application for a preliminary site assessment. The Community Development Department submitted an application. The Board of Selectman approved it. The resulting report included a set of recommendations for further investigation, including an endorsement of the goal to conduct a Master Plan process.
The Board of Selectman formed the Affordable Housing Plan Committee in recognition of a need for affordable housing and a desire to give the town control over where housing opportunities are created. The committee’s research shows the need is critical, and the options that are compatible with town planning objectives are limited.
If Town Meeting approves warrant article 23, it will eliminate an essential option from the affordable housing plan. The most likely result is that Chelmsford will never achieve the desired control, and “unfriendly” Chapter 40B developments will further undermine town planning.
Fortunately, an alternative Town Meeting Warrant Article was submitted. Article number 22 would “undertake a planning study on the potential future municipal uses for the Town-owned parcel of land, commonly referred to as ‘Oak Hill’.”
As stated in the Master Plan Vision Statement, “open spaces and recreation areas enhance our quality of life.” The Chelmsford Land Conservation Trust and the Open Space Stewards deserve credit for helping make Chelmsford a place where people want to live.
The vision statement also sets a goal of “diverse and affordable housing opportunities for people of all income levels.” If we want to make Chelmsford a place where people can afford to live, we need to follow through on the planning process.
Many people said that voting against the recall was not a vote in favor of 9 North Road. A vote against warrant article number 23 is not a vote against preservation.
Town Meeting Representatives should vote No on article number 23 to preserve the integrity of the town’s planning process. They should instead vote Yes on article 22 to keep our options open and to collect the information we need to make an informed decision – a very important decision about the future of Chelmsford.