Easton town center: Real estate boost or character crusher?

Planning consultant Glenn Chalder explains the new town master plan draft during the Easton P&Z information meeting on June 20. — Brad Durrell photo
Planning consultant Glenn Chalder explains the new town master plan draft during the Easton P&Z information meeting on June 20. — Brad Durrell photo

A proposed Village District to create a central commercial hub in Easton was the focus of most comments during a June 20 public information meeting on the new master plan draft.

Tom Dollard, who previously lived next to the Easton Village Store (EVS), said commercial operations must grow to remain economically viable. “I don’t believe the town can control commercial development,” Dollard said.

Sheila Murphy said allowing new stores is “a slippery slope” that could endanger the environment and lead to vacant buildings. She said people move to Easton for the rural lifestyle. “If you don’t like what you’re living with, you don’t like Easton,” she said.

James Wright said he favors using the Village District approach and bringing public water — now located nearby — to the targeted area to replace wells.

“There’s never going to be a big development there,” said Wright, in comments that contrasted with those by residents worried about a chain pharmacy coming to Easton.

About three dozen people spoke during the public comment portion, which followed a presentation by planning consultant Glenn Chalder on the new master plan draft, known as the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).

The Planning and Zoning Commission is working with Chalder to finalize the new POCD, an advisory document the P&Z approves to guide the town’s future. State law requires zoning boards pass new POCDs every decade. A formal public hearing on the POCD final draft should take place in the fall.

About 130 people attended the meeting at Helen Keller Middle School. The goal was to provide an overview of the draft POCD and get public feedback. “If there’s something you’re concerned about, please tell us,” Chalder said.

About twice as many speakers opposed the Village Center as favored it, with some others just raising concerns about the POCD process. Foes voiced fears about commercialization ruining the town’s rural character, traffic, unwanted businesses and vacant stores.

“It could destroy forever the funky character of our town,” Jeff Becker said.

They questioned if a town the size of Easton could support commercial stores, especially when more people are shopping online, and whether the needed infrastructure exists.

Daniel Magner worried the Village District “would give tremendous latitude to the P&Z,” who he noted is appointed and not elected. “I think I’d prefer to live with things just the way they are,” he said.

Village District supporters said the town now has few places to gather, the EVS upgrade was a success, and a small center with shops and eateries could boost stagnant real estate values and attract young families.

Nicole Massini said her family moved here a year ago and likes all the farms but misses having access to small stores and restaurants. She said a Village District would allow “modest development” and “build a sense of community in town.”

Scott Centrella, a former selectman and P&Z member, said the Village District is “something worth trying” and could help “attract the next generation of people.” He said having Easton remain a special place “doesn’t mean we do nothing.”

The Village District would be created in the area near Sport Hill, Center and Banks roads, and include the EVS, town-owned EMS building, parts of Silverman’s Farm and other parcels close to Firehouse Green. The P&Z would use state-sanctioned Village District regulations, which allow greater control over building aesthetics and what type of businesses are allowed.

Wide ranging

The POCD covers a wide range of topics, from proposing a network of new pedestrian walking paths to promoting agriculture and open space.

Fire Chief Steve Waugh said the fire company isn’t interested in putting a new police and EMS facility on the empty property next to the firehouse, as suggested in the POCD draft. The fire company owns and uses the site for training and overflow carnival parking, he said, and isn’t interested “in discussing the disposition of our property.”

First Selectman Adam Dunsby said he’s “skeptical” a new police station is needed or would happen. Dunsby pointed out a previous Board of Selectmen endorsed the Village District concept, and said the POCD should emphasize the town doesn’t want sewers and has a role in protecting the public drinking water supply.

Selectman Robert Lessler said he backs the Village District. “That’s how we’re going to manage the change that’s going to happen anyway,” said Lessler, adding he also likes the push to build walking and bicycle trails.

Grant Monsarrat said P&Z Chairman Robert Maquat’s family owns considerable land that abuts the proposed Village District, and a legal opinion should be sought on whether that’s an ethical conflict. He said he isn’t disparaging Maquat but wants clarity on the issue.

“I have every intention of doing the right thing,” responded Maquat, who has said he may have to recuse himself from certain Village District zoning applications.

Former First Selectmen Bill Kupinse took issue with the POCD’s focus on town finances and creating a place for people to gather, saying the P&Z isn’t a finance board or the town’s “social directors.”

He questioned if the area under consideration for the Village District even meets the statutory requirements. “This is the camel’s nose in the tent, and we don’t want the rest of the camel in the tent,” he said of the concept.

Resident Kathy Thompson said commercial establishments aren’t needed for Easton residents to get to know their neighbors. She said that already happens at the library, schools, carnival, rec fields, Silverman’s and Town Hall.

Dr. Marsel Huribal, who owns and renovated the EVS, said people from Easton like himself would start businesses in town, not outsiders, because there’s not a lot of money to be made in a small town. “No supermarkets are coming,” he said.

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