Just Thinking…Planning for Accountability in Town Government

Whose Head Rolls?

Holliston’s town government is a horizontal structure. This makes it very difficult to hold any one person accountable for bad decisions. In fact, if you look at the three-page organizational charts that are posted on the Town’s website, you see that the Voters are at the top. They approve the projects, bylaws, budget, et al, each year at the Annual Town Meeting. Three weeks later they elect the officials to oversee the implementation of those activities.

This is pure democracy. But when something fails to work in the best interests of the community, whose head rolls?

Right now there is a proposed project in the Hopping Brook Industrial Park that lays that question bare.

The numbers – 800,000 sf and 1,400 vehicles a day

CRG – an international real estate developer – proposes to build an 800,000 square foot “cube” for a state-of-the-art warehouse and distribution facility at 555 Hopping Brook Road. The applicant states that this is being built on speculation, so we have no idea who the tenants will be. The possibilities include Lowe’s and Best Buy and other box stores; proponents have said it’s not Amazon. We do not know and may well not have control over who leases the building. 

At this point, CRG has received approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals to exceed the “height” restriction required by our Zoning Bylaws. Medway neighbors of the project who live along the rear boundary of the property have filed suit against Holliston and CRG. That decision is pending in the courts. You can see all the relevant submissions, letters and minutes on this project on the Town’s website. I expect the news from this project will continue to unfold in the next few weeks or months, and I will try to keep you posted.

The Planning Board approved CRG’s site plan. Now the PB must decide whether or not to grant the applicant a Special Permit, because “of its sheer size,” as stated by CRG in its application. According to state law, “Special permits may be issued only for uses which are in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the ordinance or bylaw” (emphasis added). Holliston’s bylaws do allow warehouse, distribution and light industrial, but they do not allow the scale of this project by right… thus the Special Permit.

No one is in charge and every one is. 

The Planning Board has five members, all volunteers, elected by voters, independent of the Select Board, not overseen by the Town Administrator. They will pass judgment, but they cannot casually deny a business the right to use its property. The decision must be defensible in court. 

Town Meeting creates zoning bylaws, the PB reviews proposals against those and state laws, and renders decisions. Other Boards and Committees are asked to provide comment. They usually do, but there is no obligation to do so, because they, too, are independently elected.

Planning

An up-to-date Comprehensive Community Plan (or Master Plan) would allow local officials to better defend against future proposals that do not fit. Our last Master Plan was done in 1999 and was not well utilized. In part, that gets back to the structure. No one is “in charge” to ensure that all Boards and Committees make decisions based on the Master Plan.

It sits on a shelf. Today it is considered obsolete by state standards, but in future blogs, I will tell you what’s in it and see what you think still applies. We can build from there.

A Comprehensive Plan would establish clear goals and objectives for officials and department staff to consider when reviewing or initiating proposals and projects. It also provides some cover for officials’ decisions, because it is developed by the townspeople and is their vision for the community. Or it will be if we also adopt the appropriate mechanisms for enforcement.

Today, with Zoom meetings and online surveys, we should be able to gather feedback from more people than ever and reach into every corner of the community to create a Plan for this century. Check out Concord’s Plan. Technology can make plans more dynamic and usable. I think we can create a vibrant and exciting discussion about Holliston.

Next Blog: 555 Hopping Brook Road continued

There are many questions swirling around about this proposed Cube. You may well have your own…but remember one thing. Emotion, fear, anxiety will not impact the final decision. All that will matter is the legality, so focus your concerns on issues that can be quantified and relate to our bylaws. Until then.


11 responses to “Just Thinking…Planning for Accountability in Town Government”

  1. Mark Schultz says:

    Thanks for trying to cut through all rhetoric on both side & presenting the facts. Not any easy issue by any means.

  2. Robert Weidknecht says:

    If someone read the 1999 Master Plan they would see that the then Economic Development Strategy Report stated that the industrial uses should be limited to those that “bring the least amount of undesirable impacts….,such as increased truck traffic” (page 1-12). Shame, terrible shame, on us for not doing any real planning and updating our archaic zoning bylaw to implement our master plan, instead having the plan collect dust on a shelf.

    • You’re 100% right, Robert. I asked the Town Administrator for a place holder to get an article on the warrant to do it. First thing we need is support for the effort. And we need to talk to the boards and committees. Can I count on you for help?

  3. Chris Warner says:

    The impact of this project , will drive the existing business out of the hopping brook commercial park. As well as dragging down the values of homes around the area. Basically losing the town tax revenue in the end. The dramatic change this will bring to this town will be devastating. I can’t agree with you more about updating how our town government works. So residents can be made aware of this types of projects earlier in the process and ways to have more accountability .

  4. Donna Kramer says:

    Thank you Mary!

  5. Steve Hedrick says:

    Thank you, Mary. You always bring forward the details & facts for Hollistonians to help make a sound decision.

  6. Chérie says:

    Chris Warner: What do you see are the reasons this gigantic warehouse “will drive the existing businesses out of Hopping Brook”?

  7. Alison Quinan says:

    While this proposed development elicits strong emotional responses, it is important understand the mechanics of the processes that drive decision making. The PB or ZB cannot just say “we don’t want that” and stop the project. Legal arguments must be made and laws (and by-laws) must be followed. This is why an updated and dynamic master plan and thoughtfully crafted by-laws are critical to ensuring that future Holliston is one that today’s residents want to live in.

  8. Janice Miller says:

    Thank you Mary, the overview is helpful. Two things stand out for me about this project and the general objections. Even if the whole town is against it, we need legal standing based on our bylaws to stop it. I believe we have that or will find that we have that. Second, the enticement here is $1 million in tax revenue. That is not nearly as great as the detrimental aspects to this town. I believe that if put to the residents a challenge to propose an alternative project that would bring in $1 million in tax revenue that there would be innovative ideas that are green, beneficial to the residents and supportive of the strong community that is so attractive to those who have chosen Holliston as their home. I am willing to volunteer on such an effort.

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