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9 Takeaways from the Oct. 30 Planning Board Meeting

With sign waivers in hand, Planet Fitness hopes to open by Nov. 17

The Planning Board met last night with all members present. There were no committee reports.

Hearings for a 30-unit apartment building at 1167 – 1187 Main St., a self-storage facility at 913 East St., the Tree House Brewing Co. overflow lot, and the parking expansion requested by Tewksbury Dental were continued to Nov. 13 by request of the applicants. 

In her Town Planner’s report, Community/Economic Development Manager Alex Lowder shared that, in addition to the continued hearings, one new public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 13. The board will hear an application to convert the commercial unit at 935 Main St. to an affordable residential unit. That is allowed thanks to an article approved at May Town Meeting.

“We have our first application on that,” said Lowder.

In addition, NMCOG is offering technical assistance for grant writing, housing production plans and neighborhood or district plans. 

“One area of interest that I wanted to bring to your attention was possibly undertaking a study of small-lot zoning in town,” said Lowder. 

Small-lot zoning was considered during the bylaw rewrite process but required more in-depth analysis than was feasible at the time. With help from NMCOG, the town could take a serious look at where half- or quarter-acre zoning exists and where it might make sense.

The project proposal deadline is Nov. 30. Lowder asked if there was interest in pursuing this topic. The board was in agreement that more study on the matter is worthwhile, so Lowder will move forward.

“This will arm us with more knowledge,” she said.

Next, she presented the same overview of the MBTA Communities legislation, districts proposal and path to compliance to the Planning Board as the Select Board heard on Oct. 24.

“At that meeting, the board took a vote to remove the proposed Town Center District, which encompasses Archstone and  Emerald Court, from further consideration due in part to the lack of unbuilt eligible acreage in the district,” said Lowder. 

Given that lack of unbuilt land, the Town Center district would likely have led to few, if any, new housing units. Lowder did include information on the district in her presentation.

The state maintains an informational website on the law, and Lowder’s presentation is available here. The Select Board elected to table the matter until Nov. 20 to give that board time to engage with the state delegation about not only this law but a housing bill the governor put forth for consideration. 

“This law has been in place for two years,” said Chair Stephen Johnson. “I can’t imagine why we’re just now talking to them.”

Lowder reminded the board that the aim is to send two proposals to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC, formerly DHCD) by mid-November to ensure Tewksbury has a viable district for the May Town Meeting warrant, which closes in February.

“Noncompliance as a way forward seems ill-advised for at least three reasons,” said Johnson, an attorney. “The Attorney General’s already told you they’re coming if you don’t comply with this. The state’s already said they’re going to take away funding if you don’t comply with this. And the third stick is individuals or private groups are going to also sue the town, potentially, for noncompliance.” 

He asked if anyone on the board wished to discuss noncompliance as an option. No one did.

The districts still on the table after action by the Select Board and input from public safety are Main A and Main B and potentially North A. Member Vinny Fratalia asked Lowder to explain why North B and other options are off the table.

In some cases, it’s that the areas would not comply with the spirit of the law because they are far from public transit, according to Lowder, and not particularly walkable. The town’s public safety and public works departments also found the North A and B districts less desirable due to longer response times.

Johnson suggested limiting the discussion to Main A and Main B. Main Street A is an 84-acre site along Main St. from Shawsheen St. to Heath Brook Plaza, where Pushcart is. It contains Oakdale Plaza and the Village at Tewksbury community. Main Street B runs from Stonebury Crossing and 1660 Main St. to St. Williams and Orchard St. It contains about 180 acres.

Member Jonathan Ciampa said he was already in favor of Main A and B but, without help from the state to alleviate Rt. 38 traffic, it’s going to make the road unnavigable. Member Nick Lizotte agreed that noncompliance is not an option and called out the town’s distance from commuter rails.

Member Jim Duffy asked about infrastructure support from the state; Lowder answered that it would be more practical to ask developers to provide, for example, water and sewer upgrades, should this housing end up being built.

“First of all, I want to thank Alex for all your hard work — it’s a job that I don’t think anybody wants to take on because you’re not pleasing anybody, especially me,” said member Vinny Fratalia. “I’m not going to vote on any of these districts tonight because I’m not in favor of this. I don’t like it being stuck down our throats like they’re doing.” 

That sentiment was echoed by other members of the board. Ciampa said he has reached out to Rep. Dave Robertson to find out what the town is allowed to ask a developer for in terms of infrastructure mitigation to offset the impacts of a large new development. Lowder said any discussion of mitigations must be tied to site-specific impacts.

“We’re going to be more than able to discuss those items,” she said. 

Johnson advised the many Emerald Court residents in attendance that nothing is final until it passes at May Town Meeting.

“You came to these meetings to make sure that the spot you didn’t like didn’t get picked — that’s all well and good,” he said. “But if you don’t show up the night that this gets voted on, you run the risk that it gets voted down. And we start this thing all over again, which brings your property or your spot or whatever it is you care about right back into the loop.” 

After some hypothetical speculation about housing on Tewksbury State Hospital land, a motion was made to recommend Main A, which incorporates the plaza at 1777 Main St. owned by Marc Ginsburg, as the Planning Board’s top choice to the Select Board, with Main B secondary. That passed 4 – 0 with Fratalia voting no.

Dick Cuoco appeared for the dental office at 307 Old Boston Rd., seeking an as-built acceptance and release of the $10,000 bond. The board accepted the as built unanimously.

Tom Schonenberg of Civil Design Consultants also sought an as-built acceptance and bond release for 2230 Main St., the apartment complex across from Haffner’s. That was also approved unanimously.  

Next the board took up a sign special permit for the Planet Fitness soon to open at 553 Main St., adjacent to Ocean State Job Lot. Steve Venezia of Core Development and Management suggested that one reason Crunch Fitness did not succeed at the site was small signage that was not visible from the road. They aim for an eye-catching sign that will draw in customers. 

Duffy reserved the right to revisit lighting, while Lizotte questioned whether the sign as proposed would be any more visible than the Crunch sign was. Venezia said the gym plans to explore adding additional signage within the limits of the business condominium’s rules. 

“People know Planet Fitness purple, people will see the presence,” he said.

Fratalia asked if a waiver is required; Lowder clarified that under a May 2023 update to the new bylaw, they do need Planning Board signoff for the five-foot height. Fratalia, Lizotte and Ciampa questioned at some length the size and configuration of the sign and its elevation above the roofline.

In contrast, the board voted unanimously last month without discussion to approve for the Tewksbury Sports Club a number of waivers for an 18-foot, brightly lit, double-faced sign with a colored electronic message board that was four square feet larger than the existing sign. 

“To ask us to blow out the bylaw by 60 percent, that’s a big ask,” said Ciampa of the Planet Fitness application. “I prefer what’s in compliance, frankly.” 

The board expressed concern that other businesses in the development would also seek new elevated signs. Duffy pointed out that just because one waiver is approved doesn’t mean a chain reaction of signs extending above the roofline, adding that an upgrade to the building’s 30-year-old facade is a benefit.

“I don’t worry much about precedent,” said Johnson, agreeing with Duffy and pointing out the attractive stacked design. “We want the business to be successful, and you only see it from one direction.”

In the end, the needed waivers were approved unanimously, with the board noting that lighting may be revisited based on a 5 a.m. opening.

After a number of continuations, Daniel Mora of National Development appeared for Holt & Bugbee. Mora previously received signoff on an Approval Not Required plan to split 1600 Shawsheen St., the current Holt & Bugbee mill, into two parcels for a future development plan.

“There are about 11 open items,” down from 46, on the first section of the plan, said Mora. “The majority, we believe, are pretty quick resolution items. There’s a few that will require additional work.”

As with the Tree House overflow lot, stormwater management is an issue.

“We need to get you in here more often and get this resolved,” said Fratalia, who asked about legal issues with an adjacent property owner. Mora said those matters have been worked out. Fratalia praised the collaborative work with the engineering department. 

On the second section of the lot, Mora said there are 12 open items remaining. 

“We feel good about where we are,” said Mora, saying they will add a pump station to increase sewage flow.

Both hearings were continued to Nov. 13.

Finally, Michael Columba expressed frustration with the pace of approvals for the Brelundi Italian food outlet at 836 and 846 Main St., the former Mirabella’s. 

“I build all over, I never have come across so many problems,” said Columba. “It took me six months just to get Board of Health approval.” 

He said he’s spent two years and hundreds of thousands to build the restaurant and that requests are coming piecemeal from the town engineer.

“This is probably one of the smallest jobs and it has cost me so many headaches, it’s unbelievable,” he said, asking why there was no unified checklist when he got the permit to build. “Alex has been very cooperative, but the engineer refused to meet with us.”

Fratalia said the board’s hands are tied while they are still getting comments back from engineering.

There is some positive news: “The inside is literally 90 percent done,” said Columba. Once he receives signoff, he will be able to open quickly. 

The hearing was continued to Nov. 13.

In other business, Ciampa asked about the historic property at 17 Lee St. owned by developer and Board of Health member Robert Scarano, who was recently in front of the board for another long-dormant project at the end of North St. In 2004, Scarano agreed to restore the home as a condition of approval of permits for a mixed-use development at 1120 Main St. and the Crystal’s General Store Plaza. That restoration never happened. 

“The issue with the Lee street house is that there was some work being performed without a permit the week before last, and the building commissioner stopped work,” said Lowder. “There is a disagreement whether there are active building permits for the project or not. The building commissioner is of the opinion that there aren’t, the owner of the property’s is that there are.”

Town counsel is determining who is correct. 

Ciampa also questioned why the town engineer was unable or unwilling to meet with Columba’s team and asked Lowder to follow up and facilitate an in-person discussion.

“When you need to get things figured out, you get everybody in the room and you lock the doors, nobody leaves until we have a clean bill of health on our plans,” he said.

Ed note: It’s been 175 days since Duffy last asked Lowder to follow up on a promised but as yet undelivered cut sheet on the mature sycamore🌳 that is to be planted in town center to replace one cut down without authorization.

Lorna is a U.S. Army veteran and 25-year resident of Tewksbury who has written for organizations ranging from the DIA to InformationWeek to a free weekly in New London that sent her to interview the pastry chef at Foxwoods.


  1. George Ferdinand George Ferdinand October 31, 2023

    Member Jonathan Ciampa has been a great addition to the Planning Board

  2. Bill S. Bill S. November 1, 2023

    of course Fratalia favors the Ginsburg owned district. He is planning to build so much housing there. People need to wake up.

    • Tewksbury Carnation Tewksbury Carnation November 1, 2023

      Hi Bill, Vinny Fratalia voted no on the district selection. He stated that he would vote no regardless of which was chosen.

  3. […] Lowder first presented the MBTA Communities law to the Select Board in 2022, and Sen. Barry Finegold and Rep. Dave Robertson attended last week’s Select Board meeting to provide information and listen to concerns. The final zoning approval is up to Town Meeting; if the area recommended by the Select and Planning Boards and accepted by the state is not approved, the process starts again for October Town Meeting — with all districts back in the loop, as Planning Board Chair Stephen Johnson recently pointed out. […]

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