Planning Board candidates vow to preserve town we love while allowing positive change

Above: A moment of levity during Planning Board candidates’ Q&A at the library last week, when former officials reminisced about an old “gathering spot” in town. (image cropped from SAM video)

On Thursday, candidates for Town office answered questions at Candidates’ Night. As I wrote yesterday, I highly recommend viewing Southborough Access Media’s video. But I know many of you won’t, so I’m trying to summarize the highlights.

Today’s post focuses on the two candidates for the Planning Board: Meme Luttrell and Craig Nicholson. (For coverage of the moderator’s race, click here.)

The Planning Board posts are 5 year terms with responsibilities to review and approves applications for permits, subdivisions and developments, plus conduct site plan reviews. Members are also charged with proposing and amending zoning bylaws for Town Meeting approval.

For candidates with very different backgrounds, Lutrell’s and Nicholson’s platforms were very similar. Both asserted to be out to allow positive changes through development while protecting its character. Both pointed to experience that makes them ideal for the post. And both claimed they would be able to rule without bias. (A claim that residents questioned both on.)

Luttrell, Chair of the Open Space Preservation Commission explained her reasons for running:

because I care deeply how change will effect our town in the coming years. . .

Every meeting, the Planning Board, for better or worse, can change the look, feel, and character of our town.

Luttrell repeatedly referred to herself as being independent without conflicts.

Nicholson acknowleged the reference to his job as a real estate developer. He reassured the audience that didn’t make him pro-development. Rather, he is interested in what enhances communities.

The Chair of both the Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee and the Recreation Commission said he was looking to preserve the things “we all love about Southborough” that motivated him and others to move here:

Open Space, the reservoirs, the sense of community, the recreation opportunities, the schools. . . its character

Considering what could be improved, Nicholson held up what he saw as an ideal example of development in town – White’s Crossing plaza with Starbucks. By the time he moved to town, he said White’s Corner restaurant was closed and used only for parking semis. He sees the current combination of office space and a place where people can grab lunch or coffee is good for the whole town. That’s the kind of project he thinks the Town should be looking at, but without changing the nature of the town.

Former selectwoman Donna McDaniel lamented about the loss of the old restaurant as a community gathering spot. She opined that perhaps whoever was elected could think about trying to replace it. Both Nicholson, and Lutrell who said she had eaten there, agreed that the Town could use new gathering spots. Though Nicholson specified that they should be in keeping with “today’s Town.”

Nicholson fielded questions about potential conflicts related to his “day job getting permits for developers”. According to the real estate developer, his current work focus is affordable housing in Cambridge. He defended that if he was going to work with companies looking to develop in Southborough, serving on the Planning Board would be the worst move he could make.

And, he claimed that having in the past partnered with an engineering firm that works on projects in Southborough isn’t a conflict. Nicholson clarified that he hasn’t worked with Connerstone Engineering in over a year. Reiterating his Cambridge focus, he said that he has no future plans that would raise a conflict.

Lutrell was questioned about her bias towards Open Space and ability to take a neutral position on what is best for the Town. The OSPC Chair explained that her sole charge on that committee had been to facilitate preservation of Open Space. She said that she understood that the Planning Board role is much broader and she would bring an unbiased, independent view.

Chris Robbins of the Economic Development Committee also asked how she rates herself in streamlining the Town’s overly long permitting process. Lutrell pointed to her committee’s advocacy of an effective process to protect Open Space. She said she would be in favor of  streamlining process.

Nicholson weighed in that the Town boards don’t seem to communicate well. He said that he was interesting in implementing improvements. He outlined a triage process he’d witnessed in other towns involving all the deciding committees, so they don’t operate in a vacuum.

Answering what their vision of the Town is in 10 years, Lutrell said that a lot can be done to update current zoning to keep what we love while creating new development and gathering places.

Nicholson echoed, adding the importance of finding more opportunities for seniors to stay in Town and remain active participants. He said that also frees up homes for younger people moving in to keep thriving. Answering a question from moderator John Wilson on the Over 55 housing cap, he explained that the cap is on clustered housing. He said that other options for housing seniors need to be explored, including ones that allow 75+ and 95+ residents to stay actively involved in Town.

Lutrell said that the Over 55 zoning should probably be reworked, as it was initially meant to provide affordable options through non-profits.

McDaniel informed the candidates that very few Southborough seniors have moved into the Over 55 developments. She claimed the out of towners who move in have little interest in Southborough. She advised that if the housing is being created to help Southborough seniors, something else is probably needed.

In summing up, Lutrell repeated that her extensive experience working with the Planning Board and attending meetings makes her ready to hit the ground running.

Nicholson said that his daily work is understanding zoning and site plans. He furthered that his “external view of the world” through work in Cambridge allows him to see “what’s coming down the pike” when working on zoning codes.

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