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Metrowest region gets some State attention

June 23, 2011 — Regional planning officials are about halfway through their year-long review of the MetroWest and Interstate 495 corridor that will eventually identify top priority development and preservation sites around the region.

For the past few months, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Council have met with local officials in 37 communities to develop a master list of needs as part of the 495/MetroWest Development Compact. These range from possible sites for new homes or commercial shopping centers to crumbling roads, bridges or wastewater treatment plants in need of upgrades. Other communities have identified areas they want to preserve as open space.

The goal is to create a report by the end of the year that will prioritize the region’s top needs.

And on Tuesday night, regional planning officials met in Boxborough to give the public some of the first clues about how the process is coming along so far.

Maps, Maps, Maps
The idea of the 495/MetroWest Development Compact is a simple one, according to Robert Mitchell, the state’s special assistant for planning initiatives in the executive office of housing and economic development.

“There’s a lot of need; more needs than we have money to pay for,” Mitchell said before Tuesday’s event. “So we need to figure out where we put the money so that it has the biggest impact.”

Jeffrey Mullan, secretary and CEO of the state Department of Transportation, and Gregory Bialecki, secretary of the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, announced the creation of the compact in June 2010, but the program got underway in earnest at the beginning of this year.

During the past few months, regional planners have researched past reports and studies and have gone around to each of the 37 communities in the coverage area to develop a municipality-specific list of priority sites.

The region being studied stretches along I-495 from Westford in the north to Plainville and Foxborough in the south and from Natick and Wayland in the east to as far as Worcester in the west.

Already, 646 priority areas have been identified through the first round of interviews with local officials.

Of those, 226 are development sites, meaning local officials would encourage commercial or residential construction in these areas. Another 383 are preservation spots, meaning local officials want to protect them from development. Another 37 are some sort of combination or other designation.

The developable sites represent 23,000 acres of land, according to Vera Kolias, a planner with the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission, which is one of the groups involved in the project.

On Tuesday, more than 50 people attended a public forum at the Holiday Inn Express in Boxborough to look at maps of each of the communities in the coverage area and discuss some of the sites that have been identified.

Most in attendance expressed praise for the state committing about $350,000 to study the region.

“Money is going to be more limited in the future, so it’s good to put money in those places where it’s going to be most beneficial,” said Eric Denoncourt, Southborough’s town planner.

However, he acknowledged that the tough part is getting representatives from 37 different communities to agree on what the most important regional priorities are.

Allan Fierce echoed that sentiment. Fierce serves on the Stow Conservation Trust, a group that advocates for land preservation. He too is happy to see the state identifying the region as a place for priority projects.

“The question is, will they seek to protect and develop the right places?” Fierce said.

Bialecki said that after priorities are developed in the region, it will be the state’s responsibility to do the next part.

Even in an environment of constrained resources, “We still have the capacity to do big things,” Bialecki said.

This story originally appeared here