Community Spotlight Features

Belchertown Creates Cohesive Plan for Growth

Community Spotlight

Douglas Albertson

Douglas Albertson says Jessica’s Boundless Playground is just one important addition to Belchertown’s recreational culture.

Douglas Albertson says Belchertown officials are in the midst of several major planning initiatives that have converged with the goal of addressing the community’s needs, setting the stage for future growth, and connecting the former Belchertown State School with the town center and Lampson Brook Farm property that borders the edge of the state school and was once part of it.

“Belchertown is poised for the next round of development, and the Planning Department is getting ready for what will come. But we’re making sure that what we do is what the community desires,” the town planner told BusinessWest, adding that making areas contiguous in the town is the main focal point within that vision.

An assisted-living facility called Christopher Heights of Belchertown, to be built by the Grantham Group LLC and contain 83 units, 40 of them affordable, has been approved on the old state school property, but the group is waiting to receive low-income housing credits before breaking ground for the project.

Four buildings have been demolished to make room for the facility, and this year the second phase of demolition on the property has begun with the abatement of the multi-story former auditorium, which will be torn down when it is complete.

The master plan for the former state school created by MassDevelopment contains space for retail shops, offices, and live/work/play units for artisans, but there is a need for connectivity between that acreage and other parts of the town within walking distance, including the town common, the public-schools complex, the police station, the senior center, and businesses and apartments to the north.

To that end, Albertson applied for and received a grant from the American Institute of Architects and the New England Municipal Sustainability Network, which sent a ‘sustainable-design and resiliency team’ comprised of five experts in engineering, architecture, community design, sustainability, and planning to the town. After spending three days in the community gathering input, which included a public forum that attracted close to 70 residents, they conducted research and follow-up interviews, and looked at available development sites. The team’s final set of recommendations is not complete, but the initial report notes that piecemeal planning done in the past needs to be pulled together in a cohesive manner that will fill in gaps that exist.

“The plan is all about the larger community and providing cohesion,” Albertson said.

Selectman Nicholas O’Connor is also helping to plan for the future, and has enlisted aid from more than a dozen people on town departments and boards. He told BusinessWest that, although he hopes the former state school property will someday attract new businesses, retail operations, and restaurants, business owners and entrepreneurs need a reason to want to come to Belchertown.

O’Connor was elected last May, is the liaison for the town’s human-services group that includes about 15 organizations, and believes that adding agritourism and recreational opportunities will help attract businesses and result in visitors who could help them to thrive.

“We get a lot of vehicular traffic, but it is not stopping here,” he noted. “We are land-rich and have so many beautiful places to hike and fish that we should be able to capitalize on that, which would help to create a more fertile business environment.”

O’Connor and other officials believe building a new sports complex large enough to host tournaments would bring more visitors to town, and the Cultural Council wants to create a performance and community space for concerts, drama productions, and other gatherings which could also make a difference. They would, in theory, both benefit residents and draw people into vibrant spaces that could give new businesses and restaurants an opportunity to germinate and do well.

Old-school Thinking

O’Connor cites the former Lampson Brook Farm property as a prime spot to add a sports complex as well as the playing fields that the Recreation Department says the town needs, especially since they will lose some of the ones they have when the old state school is developed.

Obtaining ownership of the property would be timely, because the farm used to be part of the old state school, and Gov. Charlie Baker recently said he wants it removed from the state surplus rolls.

“It contains hiking trails that we can’t use right now due to no-trespassing signs,” O’Connor said.

The town is also hoping to purchase the defunct Patrick Center on 47 State St. near the public-school complex, which has been vacant for more than a decade, for recreational use. It is going through a value assessment and consists of a 4,400-square-foot building on 5.4 acres.

The Norwottuck Rail Trail ends a few miles from Lampson Brook, and O’Connor says if it could be extended through the farm property into the MassDevelopment site, it would provide a connection that would allow people to get from one area to the other more easily.

“The goal is to create a pedestrian zone,” he explained, adding that the town is also petitioning the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority to extend the existing bus route to the courthouse.

Residents are doing their own work to fill in gaps and make Belchertown more accessible and attractive, and the completion of Jessica’s Boundless Playground about 16 months ago on school property off Route 202 across from the police station serves as a prime example. It is fully accessible, contains exercise stations for adults and state-of-the-art play equipment for the small set, and was named in honor of 19-year-old Jessica Martins, who had Rett syndrome and died in 2009 from the H1N1 or ‘swine flu’ virus.

Her mother, Vicki Martins-Auffrey, formed Team Jessica with a group of friends. It raised $600,000 for the park over a five-year period (which included $200,000 in Community Preservation Act funds). In addition, close to $400,000 in volunteer labor was donated, with help coming from local businesses and 200 volunteers from the community who built the playground in two days.

“We had to turn people away,” said Martins-Auffrey, adding that the idea for the boundless playground came from Drew Gatesman and Mike Seward, who contacted her and suggested the park be named after her daughter. “The response to this was incredible. It seemed like we made the impossible happen, as a lot of people didn’t think we could ever do it.”

In addition, several hundred residents have completed four ‘walk audits’ to identify areas around State Street, Route 9, and Route 202 that need improvement and are home to many apartments and shops.

Albertson said town officials recommended installing sidewalk curbs, wheelchair ramps, and other enhancements that could help pedestrians navigate the area more easily. As a result, signs have already been put up to identify crosswalks, and as the state school property is developed, pedestrian accessibility will remain an area of focus.

The town is also planning on making improvements to the section of Route 202 between the state school property and the public school complex, and Albertson said officials hope to implement the state’s Complete Streets policy in the area, which would make it eligible for additional state funding that could pay for new sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and other amenities.

“It’s a great time to do some planning for this in addition to developments at the state school,” Albertson said, adding that, as that property gets developed, it may fuel investments by businesses situated along the nearby commercial zone on Stadler Street.

He noted that a large commercial lot owned primarily by Pride that sits to the west has real potential for development. Pride purchased the 46-acre parcel in 2005, and a few businesses have been established there, including a physician office building, Tractor Supply, and Planet Fitness. The Eastern Hampshire District Courthouse also sits on six acres, leaving 28.5 acres open for development.

The Town Common is about a mile from the courthouse and is included in the larger planning area, and Albertson said the idea is to create a sense of cohesion between it and the area along Route 202 that runs from the old state school to the public school complex.

Infrastructure work is also nearing completion on Route 181 and is expected to be finished in the near future. “It has been rebuilt and was in the works for well over 10 years,” the town planner continued, noting that the roadway has been widened, new sewer lines have been installed, and drainage repairs have been made.

Development is also occurring in the form of a large commercial solar-energy project that was recently approved and will be built toward the end of the year by Nexamp on land that includes a sand pit and a Christmas tree farm situated between Franklin and North Liberty streets.

“We were one of the first green communities, and clean energy is part of our value system,” Albertson said, noting that a previously approved solar farm off Springfield Road has been completed and is expected to go online in the near future.

Businesses are also growing, and Albertson said Universal Forest Products LLC has purchased abutting property with plans to expand.

Forward Movement

Creating cohesion between the town common and the area along Route 202 that is bordered by the public schools complex and the state school on each end is a project that will take time.

But O’Connor and Albertson, along with a supporting cast of officials and active residents, are committed to fulfilling that goal.

“There is connective tissue that overlays everything,” O’Connor said, “and what we have planned is something we need to do not only for ourselves, but to position the town as an attractive place where businesses can grow and thrive.”

 

 

Belchertown at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 14,735
Area: 52.64 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.97
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.97
Median Household Income: $76,968
Family Household Income: $80,038
Type of government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Hulmes Transportation Services; Belchertown High School; Super Stop & Shop
* Latest information available

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