Fire Station, Housing Compliance Tied as Board’s Top Goals

The Bedford Select Board on Tuesday agreed that its two primary goals for the remainder of this fiscal year share top priority. One could be achieved in a little over 100 days. The other, at best, will also be at or near the top spot for fiscal 2025.

Leading the current list are compliance with the state law mandating rezoning for multi-unit housing and construction of a central fire station.

Only six-and-a-half months of the fiscal year remain, and “the goals are actually meant to start immediately, with the understanding that we will regroup around July 1 to see which will need to be continued into the next fiscal year,” Town Manager Matt Hanson explained in an email on Wednesday.

The Select Board delayed the process because the permanent town manager’s position was vacant from May through September.

Select Board member Paul Mortenson on Tuesday advanced the need to give highest priority to the housing law compliance, because of its potential for long-term townwide impact. The law requires at least 50 acres to be zoned to allow multi-family housing by right, with a density of 15 units per acre or more, without age restrictions.

The Planning Board has been focused on designating zones for weeks, in preparation for a decision at the Annual Town Meeting beginning March 25. Compliance deadline is Dec. 31, 2024. Mortenson acknowledged that the Planning Board is the sponsor of the measures, but added that the Select Board was encouraged to get involved.

Member Emily Mitchell, who has been the board’s point person on the fire station for two years, said realizing that long-discussed project should be the Select Board’s highest goal. 

“I don’t want this board to be in a position of complacency,” she said. She was concerned about “the optics” of relaxing over “a fire station project we have always owned.”

Her colleague Margot Fleischman pointed out that a design team and building committee “are hard at work on our behalf advancing this project.” The pieces are in place, she said, while “this moment is calling to us to engage more with multifamily zoning. 

Shawn Hanegan, like Fleischman, a former Planning Board member, agreed that the rezoning “has too many things that could go sideways.”

“Either way it’s not going to have any practical difference,” Mortenson pointed out. Fleischman suggested that both should be equal priorities. Past boards have occasionally split categories that way.

The housing compliance had a meteoric rise to the top, since it wasn’t even on the list the last time the board undertook the process a year ago. On Tuesday, members, at first, considered merging it into the goal of expanding housing diversity, but quickly differentiated, led by Mortenson. The zoning changes, he explained, “are going to affect the town for years to come.”

The Select Board did not vote the completion of the Great Road Master Plan as a current goal, since that comprises the unfinished element in the area of Willson Park: the junction of The Great, Concord, and North roads. And money for design of improvements there is not in the fiscal 2025 capital budget.

Fleischman acknowledged the challenge posed by the historic bottleneck. “It’s going to take a long time to decide what direction to go. It may take a really extensive period of public input and deliberation,” she said. Fleischman noted that options for improvements in the original master plan included a roundabout, conversion to a standard intersection, or signalization.

“The Select Board, with public input, has to decide what our goals are for that area,” she continued, mentioning preservation, walkability, and traffic safety. “It all fell apart because all of the options were unpalatable in some way,” Mitchell pointed out. Fleischman agreed, saying, “At every turn there was a constituency that had a strong negative feeling about it.”

Mortenson said, “This does sound ambitious for the next 12 months.” 

Fleischman concurred: “We probably don’t have the capacity or time or money to do this. But my hope is to start the process of outreach and decision making so it doesn’t take us 10 years to make up our mind.”

Hanson asked if hiring a traffic engineer would result in “the same three or four options.”  

Hanegan suggested specifically asking for a new solution. “After 12 years, if nothing else, we need a refresher,” said Fleischman.

The board decided to concentrate on simpler, spot safety improvements, such as lighting or crosswalks, many of which could be implemented between the Department of Public Works and the board’s Transportation Advisory Committee.

Other significant goals established included:

  • Implementation of a municipal space inventory study, which may be ready for the board to review as soon as next week.
  • Long-term planning for Springs Brook Park. Recreation Commission Chair Robin Steele said that her board is preparing criteria for a planning consultant. “I think we need more rocket fuel for Springs Brook Park,” said Mortenson.
  • Review of the staffing commitments requested by boards and committees.
  • Exploring the concept of allowing non-citizen legal residents to vote in town elections and town meetings. Hanson said this was suggested by a resident, for example, applying to people who have a permit (“green card”) to live and work permanently in the U.S. In an email to the editor on Thursday, Emily Mitchell said, “While we did discuss voting, the board’s consensus was that this would likely require a home-rule petition to the state (as Boston is currently attempting) and may be too heavy a lift. We focused instead on asking the Town Manager to explore the possibility of allowing non-citizen residents to serve on boards and committees, which could potentially be accomplished through a bylaw change.” 
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