Today, The Bedford Citizen presents part three in a series of profiles on candidates running for Select Board, School Committee, and Planning Board. Although none of the seats for this year’s Town Election on Saturday, March 11 are contested, we feel it is important for residents to know where the candidates in three high-profile boards stand on issues.
For a complete list of the candidates, visit https://thebedfordcitizen.org/2023/01/town-election-2023-candidates.
And for information on voting, check https://thebedfordcitizen.org/2023/01/updated-2023-bedford-town-election-schedule-and-information.
Today, the focus is on the Bedford Planning Board.
Steve Hagan has a special place in the municipal service record book. For the last three years, he had been a member of both the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission. Indeed, over the past year he was a dual chair.
There were no conflicts, he said. “It actually worked out on both committees.” For example, he said, Werfen, the industrial concern on Hartwell Road, proposed an addition that involved action by the Planning Board and Conservation Commission.
Although the issues were different, “Since I sat through both meetings, I knew all the players – and the neighbors. By being on each one, I knew the questions,” he said. “I understood the whole situation. This was important to the town because Werfen is a major industry.”
Hagan noted that he has been a member of the Conservation Commission for 15 years and completed 14 training classes, through the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions. There were eight “fundamental” classes and six that were advanced. Now, he said, he is undertaking similar instruction for the Planning Board.
One prominent agenda item over the past several months is compliance with a state law that requires zoning for multi-family housing in cities and towns served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Although the board has submitted forms that buy some time to figure out what to do, there is no obvious answer.
Hagan is not discouraged. “The state is still in a little bit of flux, and we’ve got two years to figure this out,” he said. “The important thing to remember is it’s a zoning issue. We will come up with a zoning approach. We’re going to find a way.”
One area with potential is the mixed-use overlay district that comprises retail areas on the east end of The Great Road. “We think we could zone it in a way that would satisfy the state,” he said, noting, “We don’t have any insight in what the owner is going to do.”
The Planning Board has continued to meet remotely even as almost all other town boards and committees now convene in person, some in a hybrid format. “I am neutral on the subject,” Hagan said, but, in any case, there should be an option for virtual meetings to avert things like weather-related postponements.
“On Zoom, you can see people’s faces but you can’t get the entire body language,” Hagan said. He added, “As long as everybody is being civil – there are times when people in the audience have especially strong opinions.”
Jacinda Barbehenn is a passionate advocate for change that would diversify Bedford’s housing inventory. “I think structural impediments have allowed us to have an outsized resistance by a minority of residents. And as long as we don’t allow for other voices to be heard, this will be a repetitive thing.”
Among those “structural impediments” is the Open Town Meeting, Barbehenn said, populated by a tiny percentage of voters who are “wealthier, whiter, older, and more privileged than the average person.” Other residents – parents of young children, caregivers, people with multiple jobs – don’t join in as much but are “keenly aware about the change that needs to happen to keep the town affordable.”
“The way our structure is set up is really geared toward saying ‘no,’ not what can we do to make this good for the community. There are groups charged with creating hurdles for developers; do they really have the right reasons in mind vis a vis their charter for existing?”
Barbehenn is optimistic about complying with state guidelines requiring some multi-family zoning, perhaps by rezoning what are now mixed-use zones. “Even if someone wanted to build a bunch of residences in that zone, they would see the benefit of doing a little bit of commercial, too. We still would likely get that mixed-use development.”
“Bedford is not an island,” Barbehenn continued. “We exist within a metropolitan region. We have done well for ourselves as a community because of the location we are in the region. Now we all need to do our part and fill this housing gap. It’s not going to have the catastrophic consequences that people think are going to happen.”
Otherwise, Barbehenn said, there will be an exodus of residents from the state. “We are at a tipping point in our regional economy. Jobs are going to move to other places.”
Barbehenn said that for some time she has been calling for approaching the owner of the Great Road Shopping Center about rejuvenation. That could include a residential component. She envisions riverside walkable features with housing and retail “so people there don’t even have to own a car. There is all sorts of potential down there.”
Part of the “structural” problem, she said, is that the housing committees and staff are under the Select Board organization chart; “the Planning Board is independent. They need to talk with each other more.”
The Planning Board has yet to return to in-person or even hybrid meeting format, and Barbehenn is fine with the Zoom option. “I feel we have had more constructive, better conversations on Zoom than we ever did sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and not looking at each other.” The remote platform also allows more public engagement, she added.