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CONCORD

Voters to set tone for village

Task force tries to strike balance

A town task force drafted proposals aimed at preserving the character of West Concord while allowing future development. A town task force drafted proposals aimed at preserving the character of West Concord while allowing future development. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/File 2006)
By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts
Globe Correspondent / April 10, 2011

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West Concord, known for its locally owned businesses and small town feel, is coming to the end of a three-year process to figure out how to preserve its local character while allowing development to move forward.

The next step takes place this month, when Town Meeting voters consider a list of zoning changes and other measures that would set the tone for West Concord’s future.

“This is the culmination of a major master planning effort over the past three years,’’ said Marcia Rasmussen, Concord’s planning director. “We’re trying to preserve and protect what we have, with the mix of uses that we have.’’

There are 12 warrant articles, seven of which will be taken up at the annual Town Meeting, which starts April 26, and five slated for a Special Town Meeting session to be convened alongside the annual proceedings. The most controversial item, officials say, will likely be Article 54, which would limit the number of chain retail operations in the West Concord Business District to 10.

Much of the planning work has been done by the West Concord Task Force, which was created in 2008 to draft recommendations for addressing development in West Concord.

“I’m hoping West Concord will look like a village that people want to walk and live in,’’ said Debra Stark, owner of Debra’s Natural Gourmet on Commonwealth Avenue. “I’d like to see West Concord come into modern times in an old-fashioned way.’’

The articles up for debate during annual Town Meeting are mostly related to the village’s business district, while the Special Town Meeting items largely focus on industrial zoning issues. While they are based on the task force’s recommendations, not all of the proposals have the panel’s unanimous support, according to a report it posted on the town’s website, www.concordma.gov.

Article 51 on the Town Meeting warrant calls for the creation of a village retail district as part of the business zone, and would allow only retail and other pedestrian-oriented uses on the ground floor of buildings along Commonwealth Avenue between the Ninety Nine restaurant and the lot beyond Dabblers Hobbies & Cafe. Existing residential uses could remain, but any changes would require a special permit.

Other articles would create a new definition of grocery store and limit the size of retail establishments and restaurants within the business and village district; and require setback and height changes for new development.

While Article 54 would establish a bylaw defining “formula’’ businesses such as chains and franchises, and set a limit of 10, Article 55 would establish the formula business bylaw but would not set a cap on how many could open in the village.

One criteria for a formula business is that it has more than 15 similar establishments, Rasmussen said.

Convincing Town Meeting to support a limit on chains like 7-11 and Dunkin’ Donuts in West Concord’s proposed Village District will be the biggest hurdle, members of the task force said.

Last year, residents rejected a bylaw on formula businesses by 13 votes.

“If we want to change that this year, we need to get a bunch of people to get themselves to Town Meeting and vote for it,’’ said Jimi Two Feathers, a member of the West Concord Task Force.

Resident Pat Nelson attended an informational forum about the proposed changes last week. She said she sees both sides of the argument for a cap.

“I’m so conflicted about the idea of capping formula businesses, I really go back and forth on it,’’ Nelson said. “On the one hand, I don’t want to see a lot of chains in the neighborhood, but on the other, I have conflicts about telling landlords what they have a right to do on their property.’’

The area included in the district already has six such businesses.

Resident Gretchen O’Connor said she strongly supports the cap. She lives in Concord Center but does her shopping in West Concord.

“If you want to do one-stop shopping, you go to West Concord,’’ she said. “It’s such a unique blend of businesses and industry. It’s really important to the people of the town.’’

O’Connor said she supports a formula business cap because she doesn’t want to rely solely on the special permit process.

“I believe in our town government and I believe people want to do the best they can do, but there are always politics involved,’’ she said. “There are interests that can put pressure on the decision-making process.’’

Among the Special Town Meeting articles related to West Concord, one calls for establishing a “mixed-use overlay district’’ for properties at 50 Beharrell St. and 13B Commonwealth Ave.

Rasmussen said this article is tied to a specific development proposal that would combine housing, industrial and commercial spaces. Town officials are working with the developer on an agreement that would have provisions such as affordable industrial space, development of and public access to a park along Nashoba Brook, and creation of a publicly accessible “square or common.’’

Rasmussen said if the development agreement is not done by the time the article comes up for a vote, it will be tabled.

One article includes a proposal that would change several West Concord Industrial District uses so that some of them may no longer be allowed or may require a special permit.

Auto dealerships would not be allowed, while special permits would be needed for a funeral home, personal services shop, veterinarian or kennel, auto service station, and auto repair shop, for example.

Another article revises the existing combined industrial/business/residential use, which is allowed by special permit in the West Concord Industrial District, to reflect such recommendations as limiting retail to no more than 25 percent of the total floor space; requiring that industrial and nonretail business could not be less than 30 percent of the total floor space; and prohibiting residential uses on the ground floors.

Correspondent Sarah Thomas contributed to this story. Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.