Final days to comment on proposed downtown Athol guidelines

Main Street in downtown Athol.

Main Street in downtown Athol. FILE PHOTO

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 07-05-2024 4:47 PM

ATHOL – The town’s Department of Planning & Development and members of the Downtown Vitality Committee are hoping residents will take a few moments to provide opinions on the final draft of the Downtown Design Guidelines.

The Newburyport consulting firm Innes Associates, Ltd. was hired by the town to work with the DVC on overhauling the guidelines, which were last updated more than 25 years ago. The public comment period closes on July 11.

The draft was presented to residents at an open forum on July 11 and was the last opportunity to view the document and ask questions of the consultants, Athol officials and members of the DVC.

“There’s not much time left for people to comment,” said Planning & Development Director Eric Smith. “The Design Guidelines are posted on the (Planning Department) website. If they go there, people will find a QR code, and that QR code will take you to a form on Survey Monkey and you can input your feedback on that online form. We really want to get some feedback.”

Smith told the Athol Daily News in a July 3 email that fewer than a dozen people have completed the survey.

“It’s important,” said Smith. “We want the public to have an opportunity to review it before it becomes official.”

Smith said the Selectboard may review the guidelines at the July 16 meeting. Asked if the Selectboard needs to vote its endorsement of the guidelines, Smith said it’s not within their purview.

“It’s just kind of a way to promote it and get their input,” he said. “These guidelines are exactly that – guidelines. We’ll want to get some input from the Building Department, there may be some things they want to look at, like changes in the guidelines for signage. I don’t know if we’ll ever get a facade and sign program back in place, but we could use these guidelines to do that.”

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Two months ago, a survey made available online and at Town Hall was completed by several dozen people, who offered suggestions on improving the overall aesthetics of downtown Athol and pedestrian safety. In an earlier interview, Smith said many respondents “were basically talking about streetscape issues; whether we need more street trees or benches, things that are basically in the public realm. Obviously, the town has more control over the streetscape components.”

Beyond public control, he said, are issues which can only be addressed by property and business owners, such as building design and storefront displays.

“You can’t really regulate style,” said Smith. “You can regulate building height and setbacks, things like that, but that’s why – for now – we’re calling them guidelines. There are some tools the town can use, like site plans, to kind of impose certain things – but that’s a discussion for a later date.”

Smith also pointed out that zoning bylaws, which are enacted solely by voters at Town Meeting, can also be used to establish regulations governing building setbacks, for example.

To fill out the Design Guidelines survey, go to https://tinyurl.com/fmyu6m2y. For questions, contact Smith at esmith@townofathol.org.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@aol.com.