Northfield’s Main Street center of town discussion
More businesses or pastoral stretch?
Richard Massey, an engineer with the State Department of Transportation, outlines the process by which Northfield can take its Main Street back from the state. Northfield Highway Superintendent Thomas Walker, right, said costs to maintain the road would be prohibitive. The two were part of a panel on the future of Main Street, a section of the town's ongoing master plan.
NORTHFIELD — While the town’s ongoing master planning will encompass the entire town, a recent forum focused on a single street.
Northfield’s Main Street was once a thriving through-way, with traffic and tourism supporting inns, restaurants, gas stations, a Ford dealership and more.
These days, though, the main drag of what’s become a bedroom community is much quieter. Many residents and business owners have voiced their desire to revitalize Main Street, welcoming new businesses, bringing more people through the doors of existing ones and providing places for the community to congregate.
Others, however, want Main Street to stay the way it is, a peaceful, pastoral stretch of historic homes.
The key to a successful future for the town is finding a balance between preservation and renewed vitality.
Possible solutions include making Main Street a local historic district. By doing so, the town could place regulations on the work that may be done to existing buildings and restrictions on the designs of future development.
These regulations can be as strict or as loose as the town sees fit, explained Martha Lyon, master plan consultant.
Another idea was to create commercial pockets, allowing businesses to be placed in clusters. This could preserve the nature of much of the road, while creating a walkable downtown shopping area.
Though the future of the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus remains uncertain as its owners try to find a recipient for the property, the possible reoccupation of the campus has been front-and-center throughout the master plan process.
The possibility of placing the campus in a local historic district to limit the development of the property was also discussed.
Plans to give away the campus have twice fallen through, and Lyon cautioned that placing too many restrictions on the campus might scare off suitors. However, she said, the town could start the process and invite the future owners to the discussion. This way, the town could work with the owners to make sure the interests of both are met.
While nobody knows just how the former 500-student campus will be used, the thought of a new resident population has many wondering how the town could handle such an influx.
If the campus is given to a school, hundreds — possibly thousands — of students, as well as faculty and visitors, could be coming to town. That kind of addition to a town of about 3,000 could create problems, including parking.
As a state highway, street-side parking is forbidden on Main Street, leaving people to park their cars in businesses’ small lots, or along the few side streets off Main.
Take over Main Street
The town could change the layout of the road, incorporating parking into a new design. But it’s not Northfield’s road to change.
During previous master plan forums, several residents had asked that the town look into taking back its Main Street. The road is in the state’s jurisdiction, since it carries routes 10 and 63.
State Department of Transportation engineer Richard Massey explained how the town could go about doing so.
First, the town would have to petition the DOT to begin the process. Then, the condition of the road would be reviewed, to see what repairs the state should do before relinquishing the road. Next, the DOT would see if there is any reason not to give the road to the town, then ask the town to vote on taking control of it. With the Franklin Regional Council of Governments’ approval of the turnover, the DOT would draw up plans to discontinue its use.
Once the town owns the road, though, it’s responsible for costly repairs.
Northfield Highway Superintendent Thomas Walker was not thrilled with the idea of taking over Main Street. Costs, he said, would be prohibitive and ownership of Main Street would put a strain on the already lean town coffers.
“This could more than double, and maybe triple, our current (road) costs,” said Walker.
Even if the town owned Main Street, it wouldn’t be able to do things like lower the speed limit or place some other restrictions on the road.
While Main Street may appear peaceful, many of its residents are concerned about noisy truck traffic. Several have sought a ban on “Jake,” or engine, brakes, which save trucks’ brakes by a process that slows diesel engines down, but produces a jackhammer-like sound in doing so.
The town is out of luck there.
Massey said that neither towns nor the state have the authority to forbid truckers from using the noisy equipment.
From plans to action
Many recommendations that may be included in the master plan will require a town meeting vote.
Planning Board Chairman Richard Fitzgerald encouraged the residents to come out to Planning Board meetings and hearings, so they can become familiar with proposals ahead of time. All too often, he said, voters at town meeting don’t know the specifics of Planning Board proposals, and can be put off when they receive an 8- to 15-page packet detailing a zoning change or proposed bylaw.
“If people want to see change, they should come and talk to (the Planning Board), discuss things, and see where to go from there,” said Fitzgerald. He encouraged residents not only to share their concerns and questions, but their ideas, too.
“We’re only five volunteers, and we can’t think of everything.”
Another master plan panel discussion will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 3, in Northfield Elementary School. It will focus on economic development opportunities townwide.
David Rainville can be reached at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279