By G. Michael Dobbs
HOLYOKE – City Councilors, members of the Planning Board and the neighbors near the site on Whiting Farms Road where a Wal-Mart had been proposed assumed they would be hearing about a survey of the neighbors to determine what kind of development they want on the 18-acre property owned by Holyoke Gas & Electric.
They assumed incorrectly.
Director of Planning and Economic Development Marcos Marrero told the officials and residents at the joint meeting of the council’s Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board on April 22 the survey had not yet been started due to the strained resources in his office.
The issue before the joint body was whether the present zoning of the property would attract the kind of development the residents would like to see. The two bodies are considering changings the present zone of BG (General Business) to IP (Industrial Park).
Marrero said the property had been a challenge to the city for years and he was concerned about a lengthy process including a survey that still didn’t resolve the issue. He said officials at Holyoke Gas & Electric have sent out a broad request for proposal for potential buyers.
He noted the zoning of the property “ is up in the air” and that any new project would have to come before the City Council for approval.
Marrero did not mention that in February he received a letter from Holyoke First, the homeowners group that fought the Wal-Mart proposal advocating the adoption of a Smart Growth Zone. Terri Laramee of the group wrote, “The Smart Growth zone promotes mixed use development, with well-designed projects, which enhance and support the historic character and architectural styles in the city, and supports innovative, harmonious development.”
These projects could include small retail and housing, among other uses.
She added in the letter, “We believe that our proposal will create a zoning “win/win” for our city, and we urge the Planning Department, the Planning Board, and the Ordinances Committee to support our efforts to create development that we all can live with.”
City Councilor Rebecca Lisi, chair of the Ordinance Committee, stressed the importance of proper zoning as the “only control” the city has over the development of the property since it is privately owned.
John Kelly, chair of the Planning Board, said that neither BG nor IP is the best zone for the property.
Laramee told the two groups learning the survey hadn’t yet been started was “very disheartening.”
She added, “I thought we could all work together.’ She noted the letter detailed the changes that had to be made for the Smart Growth Zone.
Al Norman, who is the land use consultant working with Holyoke First, said the Smart Growth Zone was “more innovative and flexible.”
Several people spoke of reports that Marcotte Ford was now involved in the property, although no one confirmed that interest. Holyoke Gas & Electric Manager James Lavelle spoke at the meeting but did not mention a car dealership developed on the property.
City Council president Kevin Jourdain questioned why Marrero had not made the survey a priority since the parcel is the largest undeveloped one in the city.
Marrero said the original time to complete and compile the survey was three months. He refused to promise that his office could keep to that schedule.
The two bodies will convene again at 6:30 p.m. on May 27 to continue the discussion.