ORLEANS — The tables were set for 36, but more than 80 townspeople pulled up chairs at the senior center Nov. 19 to help sketch the future of the Route 6A corridor.
With a sewer system being built from West Road to the Eastham rotary, the town must be ready with zoning that protects community character while encouraging the kind of development that will provide what the town needs. “We want to test our ideas tonight,” planning board chairman Andrea Shaw Reed said, while also hearing the public’s thoughts on opportunities, threats, and priorities. The meeting was another step in a series of meetings with other committees and listening sessions in the community.
Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey listed a slate of goals derived from those meetings: housing for every stage of life, enhancing community character, safe and inviting access for different modes of travel, commercial activities in the village and outlying areas, and a pleasant visitor experience, including wayfinding signage.
The ways to reach those goals involve attention to housing, infrastructure and transportation, and design. Meservey noted that the town has increased density opportunities for housing along 6A and in the village center, and that accessory dwellings are allowed by right in all zoning districts. “Orleans probably has the most flexible accessory unit bylaw” on the Cape, he said, but few are taking advantage of it.
Meservey said that “a vibrant community needs many types of housing to meet the needs of residents,” but “the vast majority” of dwelling units in Orleans are single-family homes. The 2017 housing needs study found that the town should create or help create 100 units of affordable housing in the next decade, 85 rentals and 15 single-family homes.
New infrastructure, such as the sewer system and the planned “Complete Streets” upgrade to consider cyclists and walkers when redoing roadways, will make development of housing a more attractive option. The Cape Cod Commission’s Route 6A Reset Study suggested options such as landscaping around Exit 12 and other improvements, and the planning board is working on further zoning amendments to encourage housing development downtown.
With that buzzing in their heads, townspeople at the Nov. 19 meeting started sharing ideas with their tablemates. “We’re asking you to do an impossible task,” Reed said, “to be brilliant and see further than anybody else can see in 15 to 20 minutes.”
Walking among the tables, a reporter heard snatches of conversation: “When you lack rules, a developer can come in and take advantage.” “You have to get rid of one lane of parking.” “Retail under housing is a great idea, but retail is closing every day.” “Everyone says if you want walkability, you have to go to Chatham. Why can’t we have that here?” “We need some kind of organization to attract new uses. No one wants formula retail.” “If you want a walkable town, is there a place in town we can close to traffic, like Church Street in Burlington?”
Thoughts on housing underscored many comments. Some said new density allowances don’t go far enough to entice developers to build affordable residences. There was agreement about the need to allow a second or third floor for housing above a retail use, with some urging consideration of five or six stories served by an elevator and appropriate setbacks for upper stories. One table discussed “co-mingling” a community center and new library with housing, while another shared a warning about writing zoning carefully so as not to incentivize high-end development at the expense of middle-income housing. It was suggested that developers get bonuses for providing “the kind of housing the town wants.” Dormitory housing for summer employees was proposed.
One group said business owners in the 6A corridor should be surveyed regarding their plans and concerns. A town economic development committee was supported by another. A third called for an inventory of commercial property and consultation with owners about uses.
(One attendee, Selectman David Currier, declined to join a table group and sat in the back of the room. At the selectmen’s meeting the following night, as his board was setting goals for the current fiscal year, he said, “I’d like to see the board of selectmen try to influence the goals of the planning board. They’re not listening to outside ideas. They have a plan. If you have anything outside that plan, they’re not listening to you. At that meeting, I was one of three people under 50… They refuse to listen to young ideas… for the love of God, can we have one meeting for zoning about businesses?”)
Other comments ranged from defending the town’s historic buildings and preserving its aesthetics to bringing back a downtown movie theater and using the old Underground Mall as a health center. Some were interested in the town funding affordable child care, and providing more parking. “Be bold in what we do to improve the corridor,” one group urged in its list of priorities, and another group had an idea along those lines: designating the corridor as a Development of Critical Planning Concern through the Cape Cod Commission.
The Commission just voted to support a West Harwich DCPC covering 43 acres along Route 28 from the border with Dennis to the Herring River. The purposes of the district, as described last week in the Chronicle’s report of the decision, “are to preserve the significant historic and architectural resources in the area, to guide development to be consistent with the area’s unique character, to address safety and transportation impacts with the commercial zone on Route 28, and to promote small-scale businesses consistent with the area’s character.”
Comments made at the session will be fodder for discussion at upcoming planning board meetings.