Two public hearings in Winchester Town Hall next week have the potential to dramatically affect the town’s center and the whole village of Ashuelot.
Residents who are concerned about life in Winchester during the next decades and beyond should attend those hearings and speak up. We need to ensure that discussion is thorough and open, and decisions are either well-reasoned or postponed until they can be well-reasoned.
On Monday, Aug. 8, at 7 p.m., the Historic District Commission will again take up the question of whether to allow demolition of a 200-year-old house in the town’s central square. This review process now seems more balanced than when it started, but we’re by no means out of the woods.
After initially canceling the customary step of a professional inventory of the house’s historical assets, the Historic District Commission did re-commission the survey, and indeed historian May Williams completed an excellent draft. That document asserts the property is eligible for inclusion in the state and federal Register of Historic Places.
Such eligibility, once confirmed by the state, means that a commercial developer who preserves the house’s historic value could benefit from valuable local and federal tax credits and from flexibility in how to meet the requirements of the building code. Related to this, the Winchester Revitalization/Economic Development Commission is brainstorming directly with the developer about how to profit from a development plan that preserves and utilizes the house, and perhaps the historic bank as well.
Not so positive are the emotional fireworks that hamper the Historic District Commission’s work. In recent months, Historic District Commission Chairman Denis Murphy twice formally tendered his resignation and then withdrew it. During a Historic District Commission meeting he inexplicably explained that “There really is no such thing as history, at least not since 1492,” and shortly thereafter stormed out of the meeting.
The commission has as yet delayed approving the minutes of two meetings, and the draft version of one set of minutes failed to include key events: the vote to re-schedule the historic survey; and the chairman’s explanation of why the commission previously voted to cancel the inventory. It was, he said, because a town employee had counseled him that guidelines did not specifically require it, and therefore scheduling could expose the town to a suit from the developer. That draft also did not record an apt observation by resident Chris Thompson. Thompson noted that it would be more prudent for the Historic District Commission to worry that residents would sue the town if it did NOT undertake the historic survey because that was central to the commission’s fulfilling its core responsibility.
On Thursday, Aug. 11, at 7 p.m., the Zoning Board of Appeals takes up a developer’s request for a zoning variance in order to build a massive firing range and survival-skills park (the biggest in New England). The location is undeveloped and rural land between Old Chesterfield Road and Route 119. The developers have plans to mitigate noise pollution and chemical pollution, and to ensure safety for children, adults, and domestic and wild animals. However, at this point their assertions about mitigation are only theoretical. The challenge is for residents and the ZBA to be able to accurately test and evaluate what the nearly constant noise of gunfire will really be like.
Additionally, residents need to consider what it will be like to have armed survival-skill students wandering around at night in the acres abutting their properties. Further, we should consider other examples. With the introduction of louder and more powerful guns, there’s now a pattern across the country of such facilities ramping up, and a pattern, not surprisingly, of conflicts between the facilities and their neighbors. As nearby as Peterborough, residents have complained that the quality of their lives and value of their properties both lessened when the Monadnock Gun Club increased its noise impact and then refused to respond to a request from that town’s select board to try to quiet the operation. We may want to consider the experience and opinions of those in Peterborough.
I hope to see many neighbors at both hearings. Now is the time to make choices that will send the town rolling down particular roads. Will that development be the kind that it builds upon the real value we already have, stimulating a variety of businesses that will generate and spread income and wealth through our community? Or will that development liquidate our unique historical and environmental assets, for the benefit of others, and set a tone that will discourage, or even shut out, more beneficial and attractive development. It’s up to us.