Autumn in the North Cemetery.

Sixty miles west of Boston, Massachusetts there is the small New England town of Sturbridge. Located at the junction of I-90 (The Mass Pike), and I-84 it has become known as the "Crossroads of New England". The town was first settled over 300 years ago, and like other small New England towns it has grown just enough over the years to be in a difficult place today. How do we embrace the future without forgetting how we got to our present? How do we attract the right kind of growth, and maintain who we are? And, what about our culture out here in Central Massachusetts?

These pages will cause one to think about how to protect what we have, our future direction, and how to move on in the very best way.

Those thoughts, and other ramblings, will hopefully inspire more thought, conversation, action, and occasionally a smile...

...seems to be working so far

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Smart Growth in Sturbridge

I was sent the following as a comment to a recent posting. Obviously, the person who wrote it has done some research, and is pretty savy about "Smart Growth"--something I am not, but would like to know more about. I chose to share it here since I believe there are others out there as curious as me.--ed.

Where Is “Smart Growth” in Sturbridge?

There has been a lot said and written about the Sturbridge sewer expansion project, by members of the business community, various boards and committees, and residents as well, as to how Selectmen have “ignored the experts”.
How about we step back and look at both sides? First the “experts”: the experts are the engineering firm of Tighe & Bond, who were hired by the town to design a sewer plant that will increase and handle sewer capacity and flows. Rumor has it the “experts” have recommended a 1.25 mgd plant. The “experts” have indeed done their jobs within that scope of their engineering professionalism – but that’s as far as their expertise goes; that’s all they’re being paid to do and it’s only one part of many parts that make up a “community”.
Now, the Selectmen as sewer commissioners of Sturbridge, have read the expert’s reports and recommendations for that 1.25 mgd plant, and have made their own recommendation to residents for a 1 mgd plant. The “expert” engineers have not considered the long term tax burdens to residents by such an expansion, nor have they considered looming property tax increases due to the Burgess School expansion, or the town hall/center school renovations. The “experts” have not considered Smart Growth techniques – that is not their job and it is not within the scope of their contract with the town. Also, the experts have not considered the current economy.
It is within the scope of Selectmen’s responsibilities to look at all sides of an issue, and all aspects of the town before making decisions. They are representing and working for the residents, the “experts” are not. Selectmen had better be cautious while spending taxpayer money. They must consider all issues and how each decision they make now, will impact the town and its residents now and in the future. They use the Master Plan & Dialogue of the Future to guide their decisions. The “experts” Tighe & Bond, do not use these guiding documents.
What about the “experts” who know about Smart Growth techniques? Why didn’t that entered into the picture years ago? Why haven’t the Zoning and Planning Boards in Sturbridge implemented such techniques? Many communities and cities across the country have done so with great success. Finance Committee talks about implementing Smart Growth in their Annual Town Meeting report, but there are few if any worthwhile recommendations. They support a 1.3 mgd plant, which is larger than that recommended by the “experts”. Some residents have circulated a petition driven by the group “Growing Business in Sturbridge”, which will ask residents at town meeting to support a 1.5 mgd plant. That is the high end of the capacity which is NOT recommended by the “experts”. Their focus is on business only, it seems.
Sturbridge is not alone when facing trials and tribulations with regard to its existing condition, necessary growth, and impacts from that growth on its current residents and future generations. Taxpayers have a personal stake in the outcome of upcoming warrant articles at town meeting because they will be paying for improvements from which future generations will benefit. Therefore, the whole of Sturbridge should make a commitment to growing in a sustainable manner by implementing and using Smart Growth techniques. It’s not just about sewer, it’s about a whole host of issues, which includes using techniques such as: redevelopment (revitalization); “fix it first” (use and improve infrastructure); concentrate development (compact, walkable, mixed-use developments); foster sustainable businesses (natural resource based businesses that use sustainable practices in energy production and use, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, recreation and tourism); be fair (promote equitable sharing of the benefits and burdens of development); and lastly, plan regionally but implement locally.
We should focus on land use and infrastructure impacts in the areas that have sewer, and those that are potentially receiving sewer connections. Sewer expansion will dramatically affect development patterns in Sturbridge. In the 1950’s, we learned that where highways went, sprawl followed. And that sprawled development gave us traffic jams and smog, too many cars, too much lost land, and central cities beset by social and fiscal troubles. Where sewer goes, development will follow, some of it far from existing public infrastructure.
If infrastructure planning takes place without thoughtful planning, then in five or ten years, the town will be asked to pay for all the additional infrastructure needed to support new development spurred by that sewer infrastructure – wider and longer roads, public transit, more sewer system expansion, more expensive school expansions – all with taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, the development spurred by unconsidered sewer expansion will place stresses on open space, view-sheds, and wildlife habitat and water quality in the receiving sewer-sheds.
Expanding commercial and industrial development certainly costs a town less than residential development, but with commercial and industrial development follows residential growth – it’s a natural progression.
Immediately, Sturbridge should consider land use planning and zoning which would channel development close to existing centers and other existing major infrastructure, such as roads and sewer; it is already allowing multifamily housing, which uses less water per capita than single family homes; it should favor “low impact development”, and concentrate on revitalization of town centers, use of vacant lots, and reuse of existing buildings.
Change isn’t going to happen overnight, and the current state of Sturbridge didn’t happen overnight. It is the result of tens of years overlooking the towns’ cycles of growth, expansion and decline. But it is a cycle, and now is the time to be proactive, not reactive.
The town has taken a great first step by forming an Economic Development Committee. Can a group of persons be designated to reach out to, and work with business owners and landowners to discuss their plans for their properties? Can the town create a “wish list” so that when channeling such development to the downtown area, a case by case review is conducted to ensure it meshes with the towns goals, and also to meet the needs of business owners? Is a municipal partnership a possibility?
Can the EDC consider designating an area, for example, consisting of all of Route 131 from the Southbridge town line to the Brimfield town line on Route 20? Can the EDC then break down that area into sections for review and consideration by zoning and planning officials? Within the context of that Designated Area and specific sections, can zoning changes be applied on a case by case basis?
If any of this is possible - and it has been done before with the state of Maryland being the most outstanding example of Smart Growth - what are Sturbridge officials waiting for?


Why isn't Sturbridge's Zoning & Planning Boards doing this?

Smart Growth is NOT just an Urban Planning Tool. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts provides Commonwealth Capital guidelines for municipalities, and in fact, Governor Deval Patrick sent a letter to all municipalities in 2007 which encourages municipalities to promote livable communities, amend zoning and issue permits for mixed uses, promotes zoning for compact development which encourages INLAW apartments, clustered developments or Open Space Residential developments, zoning which encourages inclusion of affordable units - the list goes on.

In addition to my letter, I would like to provide the following information for readers, in case they would like to learn more about Smart Growth, and the Smart Growth Technical Assistance which is available from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In July 2007, Governor Deval Patrick mailed letters to all municipalities encouraging to take advantage of Smart Growth measures in fiscal 2008, and to apply for Smart Growth Assistance.
(Click here),

At the state's website above, you will find the Governor's letter and Guidance documents for all municipalities which encourage Smart Growth. (For additional document click here)

If Smart Growth was only intended for urban areas, then every town in the Commonwealth would not be invited to participate.

The fact of the matter is: this information is available, the assistance is available, grants are available - yet, there is no movement from Zoning and Planning to institute these Smart Growth measures. And it's exacerbated by the negative stance of many in town government, such as "it'll go down in flames".

Submitted by -- Daily Reader

The following are links for sites that either agree with, or oppose the Smart Growth Concept. --ed.

"Remember what the dormouse said, "Feed your head."--Grace Slick


  1. This letter raises several good points. There is one, however, that is not accurate. The Planning Department (and by extension the Planning Board - not the ZBA as it is an appeals board) has been and is currently in the process of bringing Smart Growth techniques and methodologies to the town. As Daily Reader points out, change (be it for the better or for the worse) doesn't occur overnight - it occurs incrementally over time, and implementing these techniques is no exception. The groundwork is being laid, and there are many who are proactive in this process. It is clear that you are unaware of this, so I hope this comment will help to inform not only you, but all who read this post. Much is being done and often it is not being 'advertised'. However, if one chooses to look, it's really easy to see.

  2. Thank you for your comment Ms. Morrison. Maybe you would consider sharing some of your knowledge, as to what techniques and methodologies are being considered and brought to the town?

    Please share what groundwork is taking place, and which entities are being proactive. I'm sure many people would like to know where to look, and who to ask.

    Transparency in government is important, and maybe that's part of the problem. I have looked on the Planning Board's web page and saw nothing about Smart Growth. So it's likely others don't "see" either. You speak as if you have your finger on the pulse of this issue, and have firsthand knowledge.

    Please share information if you have it. Or where to find the information.

  3. The easiest way to access what's going on is to review previous Planning Board meetings (video broadcasts and minutes, both downloadable from the town website). It will take some searching, on the part of those who are interested, to find all the initiatives currently in process, but the info is there. Transparency is important, which is one reason why I'm very glad our meetings (I'm a member of the PB) are televised and taped. Everyone can see for themselves what is happening. As for posting things on the website and making info accessible (specific to Smart Growth), the Planning Department is inundated with the day-to-day responsibilities of responding to citizen inquiries, residential and business prospectors, project proponents, going on site visits, coordinating with other town entities and issues, etc., etc., not to mention the specific work goals of the Town Planner (among which are several of the Smart Growth issues you reference). All of that does not afford the time to keep everyone in the loop in the most accessible and easiest way possible. It comes down to having enough staff (read: budget) to do what needs to be done (never enough hands or enough time). I can tell you that Open Space Residential Design, Low Impact Development techniques, inclusionary zoning, mixed use zoning, etc., are among the various intiatives being evaluated and developed for possible implementation in town. Timelines are somewhat extended, but anything worth doing takes time and patience. I'd love to go on and on, but I have a regular day job to attend to as well. The best resource for info are the video broadcasts of the various meetings for town boards/committees (that are taped) and the meeting minutes. Hope this is helpful.

  4. While I appreciate your response, Ms. Morrison, it is blindingly glossy. I have watched Planning Board meetings for a few years. That is the point of my post: Where is Smart Growth in Sturbridge?

    There is little discussion, if any, on some of these issues during Planning Board meetings, and they are certainly not on every agenda; they're not even on every other agenda.

    For months, the meetings have been cancelled, or the agenda is very short and everyone goes home early. The Planning Board Chairman hasn't attended the last two meetings. When he's not in attendance, the meetings are exceedingly short. At a critical time when Sturbridge needs better planning, the planning board is missing in action.

    This begs the question: if the Planner is so busy, why has the Planning Board's agenda been so short - for MONTHS? If the Planner is inundated with phone calls, is her time well spent answering the phone? Doesn't the Planner have an assistant?

    There are Zoning Study Committee bylaw proposals for Planning Board review that were submitted in 2006 that have not been addressed or discussed.

    It's odd that so much time and energy was spent by the Planning Board working on the Route 15 bylaw proposal, but there are still those outstanding 2006 proposals from the Zoning Study Committee, the Committee which is at the forefront of recommending zoning changes to the Planning Board.

    One workshop recently took place on Low Impact Development, co-sponsored by the Planning Board and Conservation Commission. It's the first workshop since...when? Definitely a step in the right direction, but where was the Planning Board chairman? He didn't attend that workshop either.

    Ms. Morrison, there should be evidence of what you are saying, already starting to show. In plain English, there should be more - a lot more.

    Your statement that residents can find information relating to these topics by reviewing cable access videos is exceedingly unrealistic. It would take the average person who works a full time job countless hours and days, perhaps months, to find specific information, mainly because these topics are NOT on the Planning Boards agenda as often as they should be. Searching for that proverbial "needle in a haystack" comes to mind, and you know this. Transparency in government - I see right through it, and I hope others do as well.

    I have a suggestion though: the town administrator provides a weekly list of updates at the town's website on his webpage, consisting of 3-5 sentences which are dated so there is a sequence of events, which build on each other.

    Can the busy Planner provide something similar so residents can watch Smart Growth happen? Could the Planner's assistant start the process by providing a list of accomplishments with Smart Growth initiatives by the Planning Board over the last year?

    A couple sentences on the towns webpage so citizens will see those efforts and accomplishments surely would not extract too much time from the Planner's day.

    The town administrator also has a section for Programs and Workshops.

    Your first response was more of a riddle than an answer. Especially the last sentence. With all the points that I hit on in my post, you chose to point out an inaccuracy, provide a glossy answer, then extend a riddle to find the information.

    Your second response hits on some of the buzzwords, but leaves residents hanging in the breeze.

    I hope the Planning Board will consider my suggestion in an effort to make local government more transparent, and also to encourage citizen involvement.

  5. Clearly, Daily Reader, you have seen through my pathetic excuse of an attempt at a reasonable response - dagnabit, you got me. I'll not bother trying to fool you again; I wouldn't want to waste your time, nor mine. Oh, and by the way, since you seem to have all of the answers, I'll look forward to seeing you around town hall, being involved and helping out, and making sure the rest of us lollygaggers actually accomplish something.

  6. Ms. Morrison:

    As a resident, I asked this blogmaster to post my Smart Growth statements for residents or other interested parties to consider. He was kind enough to do so.

    I did it because there is no evidence that any Smart Growth techniques have been introduced to Sturbridge over the last SEVERAL years by the Planning Board. The blogmaster's prior post proves it can happen successfully in towns with much less than what Sturbridge has to offer.

    I didn't force you, or ask you to respond to my post, and there isn't really anything of substance in your responses.

    It is common knowledge that some members of the Planning Board supported a larger, or the largest wastewater treatment plant, which is in contrast to Smart Growth techniques.

    It is common knowledge that the Planning Board supported an unrestricted accessory apartment. The majority of Residents at town meeting however, didn't support it. Smart Growth guidelines APPROVE restricted accessory apartments, but residents didn't get a chance to vote whether they would like to have restricted accessory apartments or not.

    Should I even mention the Planning Board's support of developing a certain section of Route 15 which is miles away from infrastructure and any other businesses in downtown Sturbridge? It's hardly a good stretch of the legs when thinking Smart Growth (think: walkable communities).

    I offered up a suggestion which would help to provide specific, additional information on a specific subject-Smart Growth-to residents. I don't think it's asking much when you consider the depth and breadth of devisiveness and decline in Sturbridge.

    These are Smart Growth objectives that to my knowledge, have been met, but not by the Planning Board: 1) Adoption of Community Preservation Act. 2) Current DCS-approved Open Space & Recreation Plan; 3) 15-25% of town area protected by Conservation Restriction, or 25% or more of town area protected.

    These are Smart Growth objectives that, to my knowledge, have not been met by the Planning Board: 1) Current Master Plan (ours is now 20 years old); 2) Funding or Implementing two specific Master Plan recommendations. 3) Zoning for Mixed Use in an applicable location; 4) Building Permit issued for a mixed use development since July 1, 2005; 5) Zoning for Accessory Dwelling Units; 6) Occupany permit issued for at least one accessory dwelling unit since July 1, 2006; 7) Zoning allowing by-right multi-family dwellings (not age-restricted); 8) Zoning for clustered development/Open Space Residential Development; 9) more points on 8 if mandated, by-right, or includes a density bonus; 10) more points if a cluster development has been permitted since 7/1/2005; 11) Zoning for Transfer of Development Rights (TDR); 12) Utilization of TDR since 7/1/2005; 13) Current Housing Plan (NOTE: money has been appropriated for this since at least last town meeting); 14) more points on 13 if municipal goal for production of new units is reached; 15) Zoning requiring inclusion of affordable units. 16) more points on 15 if building permits are issued for affordable units. 17) increased housing stock by 50-99% of state goal, or 100% or more of state goal. 18) more points if a combination of TDR, mixed use, multifamily, etc is used. 19) Actions that promote fair housing choice since 7/1/06; 20) Attainment of Chapter 40B 10% threshold, or attainment of Planned Production certification; 21) Funding for the rehab of housing units since 7/1/05; 22) Production of housing units on municipal land or with municipal funding since 7/1/05; 23) Redevelop Sites & Buildings by planning a) inventory, b) remediation, revitalization, or reuse strategy, or c) site planning. 24) points for using incentives which include: a) financial or b) regulatory.


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