The Pepperell Annual Town Meeting this year will once again consider several articles to expand the present Commercial District into residential neighborhoods on Main Street and River Road. The Selectmen and Planning Board believe that increased commercial development will help solve our financial difficulties and strengthen our business community. They believe that the current Commercial District is too small. I disagree.
At a time when the demand for commercial space is at an all-time low, due both to the Great Recession and the Internet, it seems unlikely that expanding the Commercial District will do anything other than spread the town's existing businesses over a larger area. New commercial facilities may well be built on the rezoned parcels, but the businesses going in there will most likely be existing firms abandoning their present locations in places such as Paugus Mall and Railroad Square.
Is it realistic to believe that there is some enormous pent-up demand for commercial space in Pepperell that will be unleashed through rezoning? What evidence is there of this? We already have a considerable amount of vacant commercial property in town?stores at Paugus Mall and in Railroad Square, a huge empty lot where the paper mill used to be, a portion of the former Bemis Co. parcel, a building that has been repeatedly vacant near the rotary. If demand for commercial space is strong, why do these remain empty?
Rezoning could well produce more traffic as occupied stores and offices grow farther apart and more cars enter and exit driveways and parking lots, without any town-wide increase in business activity. We will likely see an overall higher vacancy rate and lower real estate values on existing commercial properties. It's Economics 101: If you increase supply while demand is unchanged, the result will be lower prices. As the commercial district expands into established residential neighborhoods, values of neighborhood housing will also fall, all together creating spottily occupied urban sprawl extending from Rite-Aid and Seven Eleven all the way into our historic district on the Peter Fitzpatrick side of the traffic circle. How will this help the town?
If we're serious about helping promote Pepperell businesses, shouldn't we be thinking about possible improvements to the existing commercial district rather than expanding the commercial zone? Shouldn't we be actively pursuing development of a well-researched plan to create a mixed-use district on the old paper mill site, which would result in a vibrant, easily walkable, expanded downtown commercial center? Do we really want our town to look more like sprawling Dracut, Billerica, or Chelmsford?
If you share these concerns, please be sure to attend Annual Town Meeting on Monday, May 6 and pay close attention to the arguments on articles 14, 18, and 19.