MERRIMAC — More than 70 residents filled the Sweetsir School auditorium last week to object to the construction of the Dollar General Store slated for the corner of Bear Hill Road and East Main Street.
Although the Tuesday night crowd was considerably smaller than the May meeting on the issue, they came with their homework done and ready to present a few surprises to both the developer and the Planning Board.
A third meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 16, at 7:30 at the Merrimac Senior Center.
Planning Board Chairman Sandy Venner reminded residents that a special permit is not required because the store is an allowed use and, in fact, is “in the area along 110 where there can potentially be commercial development on a larger scale than can be accommodated in the village square, where we also want to see thriving commercial development.”
This debate over the extent of commercial development in the town forms part of the crux of the controversy, with some in town against this type of business establishment.
“The purpose of the site plan review is to make sure that the development is in the best interest of the town and to promote functional and aesthetic design, to mitigate any harmful effects on surrounding areas. It is the purpose of the committee to regulate rather than to prohibit,” she said.
Venner also explained that a special permit had been required by the developer from the Zoning Board of Appeals because the site falls within the Water Resource Protection District (WRPD). The ZBA granted the special permit at their May 8 meeting.
Two abutters recently filed an appeal of the special permit with Superior Court, stating that the permit process did not meet a rigorous enough review.
Traffic and travel safety questions were handled first. The traffic study provided by the applicant counted vehicles on Wednesday, May 15, from 4 to 6 p.m. and Saturday, May 18, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Counts arrived at were one vehicle every minute for weekdays and two vehicles every minute on Saturdays. Traffic engineer Jason Adams reported that “for retail sites, this as low as you can get.”
The town’s consulting engineer, Jennifer Conley of Conley Associates, agreed, but also called attention to sight line concerns.
Rob Atwood, Planning Board member, raised a concern about the sight lines from Bear Hill Road onto Route 110. Conley acknowledged that this issue cannot be fully addressed until the grading is performed. The engineer for the applicant, Luke Distafano, said that in his meeting with the Mass. Department of Transportation, a green light was given for the current design with the exception of a few “minor tweaks.”
Jen Edbrooke, co-chair of Merrimac Residents Against Dollar General Store, an initiative that has now collected 217 signatures on a petition against the development, said, “They are trying to stuff their foot into the glass slipper. It just doesn’t fit. I would like to see the DOT get out there to do a site review. They have to see the berm and the width of those roads. “
Also addressed in the review were questions about architecture, aesthetics, noise and light pollution and concerns about the long-term business potential of the store.
Planning Board members John Atwood and Robert Barnes, both architects, were adamant that the structure fit into Merrimac. Barnes told the applicant not to return with any plans that did not reflect the surrounding architecture.
Atwood quoted from the bylaws, adding that “all buildings must be in keeping in design and scope with the surrounding areas. First of all, I don’t think there are any brick buildings this massive. Secondly, they both have a pitched roof both ways … When I looked at the application and the lighting plan there is excessive light spillage,” he said.
Atwood also asked about sound pollution from the air-handling units mounted on the roof. The developer could not report units of sound generated but did indicate that there were several sound buffers in place, including shrubbery and fencing.
The owner of the property, Richard Waterhouse, spike in favor of the project. He said that the “abutters at Nos. 2, 4 and 6 Bear Hill Road have no objection to the building, experts have no problem and we have no problem.”
Edbrooke reminded the crowd that Waterhouse does not live in Merrimac.
Some residents were on hand to prompt the Planning Board to protect residents’ rights.
“You are a Planning Board and you represent us. You need to take that into consideration to protect the residents so that we aren’t turning into 110 in Chelmsford. I appreciate all the concern for safety and I want to make sure that I am not inconvenienced and my lifestyle is not impacted,” said one resident.
Ian Baynes of Lane Ten Acres Road asked, “Who is responsible for looking after our interests if the business fails?”
In the final moments of the meeting James Niziack of Birch Meadow Road raised the question as to whether the site fell in the Agricultural Overlay district instead of the Office-Light-Industrial District as the Planning Board has defined it.
Board members were momentarily stunned when looking at the map, but later Venner said that the zoning map issued by the state had incorrectly extended the line of the Agricultural District to encompass the property. In her mind it did indeed lie in the Office-Light-Industrial District.