Annual Town Meeting Warrant Wording Finalized, $7 Million Rec Department Request Removed

Annual Town Meeting is only a few weeks away, and the Board of Selectmen finalized what will appear on the Town Meeting warrant, including the removal of a request for a new permanent home for the Recreation Department.

Over the past week, the Recreation Department has begun an emergency move to the Rogers Fire Station and Cameron Senior Center after various deficiencies made their current Town Farm Building home largely unfit for continued use.

Those deficiencies, which included roof paneling beginning to become unsafe and a rodent infestation, led to a request by the Parks and Recreation Committee to include the proposal to give their department a permanent home.

At a Selectmen’s meeting several weeks earlier, the Board of Selectmen demurred on rushing to a decision on the estimated $7 million cost for a new permanent building and Tuesday’s meeting was no different.

Although the Selectmen wholeheartedly supported the idea of a short to medium term lease for the Parks, Recreation and Cemetery Departments, members of the board required additional information before commitment to a permanent facility, or even requesting funding for some point in the future.

Additionally, the Selectmen noted that any town building costing more than $50,000 requires oversight by the Permanent Town Building Committee, which is currently completely focused on efforts relating to the pending Boston Road Fire Station.

Requests for proposals of potential leasing locations will be due on March 24, with Town Meeting voters deciding on whether to appropriate the funding just over a week later.

The leased facility would be somewhere between 7,000 and 24,000 sq. ft. within Westford, and would need to be available for occupancy within the next six months, if not sooner.

Parks and Recreation Committee Member Chris Barrett voiced opposition to the delay, citing that support had been shown during previous Strategic Planning Retreats and insight from the public on their recreational recommendations was part of the town’s recreational master plan.

Barrett urged immediate action to prepare for a vote at Annual Town Meeting in the Spring of 2017, but Selectman Kelly Ross noted that the lack of time between Tuesday and the 2016 Annual Town Meeting in his viewpoint.

“(Proposing) a feasibility study a few months ago would have been okay, but we’ve already closed the warrant and we’d need a crisis to reopen it,” said Ross. “For me, the crisis is not the feasibility study, it’s moving the department. That’s where I want to focus the attention. This is the type of thing we want to take our best shot at. When we rush things, that’s when we make mistakes.”

An article requesting that the Town Farm Building be dedicated as a surplus facility at some point in the future was approved to go before voters at Annual Town Meeting, but a secondary part of that article requesting funds for to demolish a storage barn at the property was removed.

Recreation Department Assistant Director Sandra Habe (left) and Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Kacy Caviston state their case for a permanent Recreation Department home on Feb. 23, 2016

Recreation Department Assistant Director Sandra Habe (left) and Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Kacy Caviston state their case for a permanent Recreation Department home on Feb. 23, 2016

Wording that Town Manager Jodi Ross described as “boilerplate” surrounding the potential acquisition of easements on the upcoming Main Street Improvement initiative was also amended. There, the Selectmen removed the word “sidewalks” following the recent controversy emanating from Main Street residents’ opposition to sidewalks proposed concurrently with replacement of the road and water main in that area.

Other minor changes on Tuesday included the removal of a warrant article requesting funding for perchlorate expenses and removing culvert designs from Beaver Brook and Oak Hill Road from capital appropriation requests.

Town Manager Jodi Ross indicated that unexpended perchlorate funding would be sufficient until October’s Special Town Meeting and that the minimal impact to the town’s Snow and Ice fund so far this winter has saved the town’s free cash to the point where the culverts can be funded without capital expenditures.

Although the wording of the Annual Town Meeting is now set, the Selectmen will still need to provide their recommendations in the Annual Town Meeting’s motions.

Although Selectman Andrea Peraner-Sweet was not in attendance and Selectman Scott Hazelton was participating remotely, the board still attempted to come to a recommendation regarding one resident’s “World Flag.”

In a citizen petition presented by World Flag Creator and Westford Resident Chitanya Hiremath, Annual Town Meeting voters will be asked to vote on a resolution recognizing that the flag symbolizes that all humans share the Planet Earth and hopes that the people of Earth can protect its ecosystem.

The resolution could not obtain a majority at the October Special Town Meeting in 2011 and was defeated by just 20 votes in a hand count at the 2014 Annual Town Meeting.

Hiremath indicated that this would be the last time he would attempt to bring the petition forward, but found mixed results from the Selectmen.

Hazelton questioned why this flag was needed when other flags already represent the international community and Selectman Mark Kost felt a flag wasn’t needed to represent the concepts Hiremath was discussing.

Even Selectmen Don Siriani, who voted to recommend support of the flag, voiced concerns over whether the town would be bound to support the philosophies of the non-profit organization begun by Hiremath to promote the flag.

In response Hiremath indicated his belief that the flag would serve as a unifying force unlike other international flags he viewed to have political intentions. He also noted that support for the principles of ecological harmony espoused by the flag were merely recommendations and non-binding.

The vote ended in a 2-2 deadlock, with Kelly Ross and Siriani voting in favor against Kost and Hazelton’s opposition. However, the board indicated that they will take another vote on recommendation to voters when Peraner-Sweet could be in attendance.

The board also unanimously recommended amendment of the Agricultural Preservation Restriction to allow a proposed restaurant at the former Eric’s and Drew Gardens property, also known as 66-68 Boston Road.

That issue will go before the Planning Board and several other local government entities on March 10.