PEPPERELL -- Planning Board members tasked with reviewing the future disposition of the Peter Fitzpatrick School heard impassioned pleas on Monday from those who want the site developed commercially and those who say that it will permanently alter the town's character.
Town Meeting on Oct. 29 will take up an article to rezone the school site from residential to commercial. It requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
Several of the 90 people at Pepperell Community Center said the plan was poorly researched and could not be judged.
"I don't feel as though the research has been done to answer any questions, even bring this to vote or Town Meeting," said Main Street resident Erin McGaffigan to applause from many residents. "I don't think we can make an informed decision when nothing's been presented to us in a fair and concise manner."
Realtor Roger Goscombe, also of Main Street, said a proper study of site use will take two years. He pointed to the Bemis property and mill site property as large, undeveloped commercial properties that need support.
"This is basically a proposal that is not ready for prime time," said Ron Carr, of 30 Elm St.
Supporters said commercial rezoning gives the town more options, and potentially increases the town's tax base.
"Would I want a supermarket? No. But that building is there. The additional revenue would help us immensely," said Alan Leao of Main Street.
Finance Committee Chairman George Zacharakis warned of future infrastructure problems that would burden the taxpayer if the property were not disposed.
"What happens if we do take that school and the School Department pulls out, and we're left with a vacant building that we now have to somehow come up with $200,000 a year," asked Zacharakis.
"If something happens to the roof, what do we do then? If the boilers go, what do we do then?" he asked.
John Masiello of Masy Systems suggested that his company might be interested in further expansion within the town, with an eye toward the school building.
Opponents stated that a "big box" store at the site will alter Pepperell and hurt local business.
"I think it's a shame that we're considering a trade-off that will potentially impact loyal businesses that are struggling to make it," said Patricia McGaffigan of Main Street.
In a letter to the board, Charles Ellers of 9 River Road predicted rezoning will hurt property values. He wrote that Saugus was once like Pepperell until "rezoning creep" altered its character.
Jarrett Menard of Independence Road suggested that the traffic would be substantial.
"There is no way. I don't care if it's a Market Basket, a Best Buy, or the biggest True Value, is going to be able to fit traffic going around two multifamily buildings over here. There's going to be a rotary with a one-lane row going in each direction," said Menard.
Robert Templeton, a member of the North Middlesex Regional School District School Committee, noted that 60 percent of the school is used by the district or leased. The building also may be used for classes if the regional high school is renovated.