Complete Streets Policy Goes Back To The Drawing Board

Until Tuesday, the draft of Westford’s proposed Complete Streets policy had been getting glowing reviews. That’s not to say it necessarily faced hostility on Tuesday, but it definitely did face a slight roadblock.

The Board of Selectmen requested additional tweaking on the Westford’s local version of the policy, which is geared toward providing safe and accessible modes of transportation for motorists, pedestrians and others using Massachusetts streets.

Chris Barrett on March 21, 2016

Chris Barrett on March 21, 2016

Various other towns across the Commonwealth have been adopting their own local variations of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Initiative, making them eligible for a pool of $12.7 million in grant funding for street safety infrastructure improvements like sidewalks and crosswalks.

Over the past several weeks, Westford Pedestrian Safety Committee Chairman Chris Barrett has been spearheading Westford’s answer to the initiative alongside Director of Land Use Planning Chris Kluchman, Town Engineer Paul Staratt and a variety of other local volunteers and staff members.

Presentations to the School Committee, Board of Health, Police Department, Planning Board and others had met with almost universal praise, but the Board of Selectmen requested modifications when Barrett brought the policy for their approval on Tuesday.

In particular, their main concern was on whether this new policy would bind future Selectmen to make “one-size-fits-all” decisions on sidewalks, hearkening back to last year’s controversial multi-meeting Main Street sidewalk discussion.

Starratt and Barrett told the board that the town would not be required to follow the policy when pursuing new transportation projects or approving new site plans, citing a part of policy that lets the town ignore the policy when it contradicts other locally based land use policies.

However, several Selectmen repeatedly voiced concerns with other portions of the policy, especially the use of words that seemed to compel town boards and staff to adhere to the policy’s best practices.

Despite support from the several other boards and town departments, Selectman Mark Kost said approval elsewhere didn’t necessarily translate into approval from the Selectmen.

“It’s far more than a recommendation,” said Kost. “It’s a directive.”

Starratt, who would MassDOT’s point person in Westford regarding the policy, told the board that the state is not interested in mandating something in towns that aren’t committed to improving pedestrian safety.

He also noted that design exemption reports are frequently submitted during grant proposals in other towns with Complete Street policies in place where there is a sound engineering reason to ignore the Complete Street guidelines.

Still, the conflicting sense that the draft policy was a mandate that could somehow be regularly superseded by other town policies meant that the Selectmen wanted it to go back to the drawing board.

It is unclear what exactly will be changed outside of requests to “soften” the language in the policy and Selectman Andrea Peraner-Sweet’s request to place greater emphasis on the goals of the policy, which the Selectmen did agree with in principle.

During grant applications, each town’s policy is taken into account and judged on a 100-point scale, with no grants being accepted from towns with policies scoring under an 80.

Starratt and Barrett said told the board they would aim to return with a new draft policy to provide the town more flexibility while also trying to keep the policy’s score above that passing grade.