AP NEWS

Billerica Planning, School Candidates Debate Issues

March 29, 2019

BILLERICA -- Planning Board and School Committee candidates dove into the issues as they debated at the Council on Aging Wednesday night.

The Planning Board debate kicked off the evening where Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) dominated the discussion.

The board is a particularly packed race this year with five candidates running for three three-year terms and two candidates vying for a one-year unexpired term.

In the three-year term race, Matthew Battcock is the only incumbent. James “Trek” Reef, Michael Riley, Janet Morris and Kevin Heffernan are the other candidates running for one of the three seats. Battcock and Heffernan were unable to attend Wednesday’s debate.

Candidates Adam Vincent and Blake Robertson are running for the one-year seat left vacant after Marti Mahoney resigned.

Like many in town, the Planning Board candidates were divided on a contentious article heading to Town Meeting in May that would establish a PUD-Industrial Park Overlay District (PUD-IP) at Technology Park.

Morris and Robertson expressed strong views against the PUD-IP, questioning the need for such zoning.

“I believe that is a solution in search of a problem,” Robertson said.

Morris objected to the number of housing units the zoning would allow -- up to 250. According to Morris, Billerica has seen “too much growth” at once, and residents’ concerns are not being heard.

“I’m not sure that they’re being heard and that’s why I’m running for planning board so that they can be,” Morris said.

While Riley and Reef described the PUD-IP as a tool for economic development, Vincent pointed to the demand for mixed commercial and residential development.

“People want to live right where the businesses are. They want to have the urban feel,” Vincent said.

Robertson and Riley disagreed on the PUD-IP’s impact on open space. Robertson argued that the PUD counters other town goals such as preserving green space and roads, but Riley countered the PUDs aided green space preservation by providing the town with a tool for developing up, not out. Redevelopment, like what is proposed for Technology Park, would help balance open space demands while preventing over-development, Riley said.

Reef agreed, saying that PUDs should only go in targeted spots where such development is needed, like Technology Park. To balance open space and development, Reef also suggested a tree protection bylaw that would require that any trees taken down in developed sites be replaced.

On the subject of balancing development and open space, Morris reminded those gathered that Billerica has met the 10 percent affordable housing threshold, saying Billerica doesn’t “have to say yes to everything”.

The School Committee is another contested race this year, with four candidates running for two three-year seats. Johanna Wetmore and Annette Famolare are opposing incumbents James Gately and Mark Efstratiou.

The plan for eighth graders to attend the new high school when it opens in the fall has been a point of concern for some, but the candidates were unanimous in saying it was not a major concern for them.

Several of the candidates pointed out that the eighth-grade students will have academic classes on a separate floor from the rest of the high school.

“I don’t think we give our kids enough credit,” Gately said as he talked about how students of different ages already interact through extracurricular activities.

Wetmore, who attended a school that housed numerous grades, said the key was also in staggered scheduling such as lunch periods.

As the conversation turned to dropout rates -- something the district has contended with -- Wetmore said Billerica’s rate indicated the district is not meeting the needs of all students and needs to take a “hard look” at how it is meeting those needs. Gately and Famolare agreed that “one size does not fit all”.

Efstratiou pointed to district programs like the Evening Diploma program and Green and White Academy, which aim to help reinvigorate students’ interest in school.

The debate ended with the candidates agreeing that the state’s funding formula is not fair to Billerica. Saying the state was “shortchanging the education system,” Famolare said the district needs to work with state representatives to change that.

“School districts are grossly under funded right now, including ours,” Efstratiou said.

Residents will be asked to cast their vote in the annual town election on April 6.