"Inconvénient pour un propriétaire de ne pas bien se rappeler au juste ou il a fait placer des pièges à loup," Honoré Daumier. Text translated by Digital Commonwealth as "Quite Embarrassing." From the Digital Commonwealth collection.

I originally published this in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle last February, but with town elections next week and two Planning Board seats up with one challenger to the incumbents, I felt like it was worth re-posting. I still stand by every word.

I had a plan for February, but then I watched the Millbury Planning Board meeting from January 24. To quote vice-chair Paul Piktelis, “This is turning into an embarrassing situation," but the reality is that we passed the point of “embarrassing” a long time ago.

Diving right into it, the Planning Board has not conducted itself in a way that is positive for the image or well-being of the town for some time now. This was true pre-COVID and remains true today - while the pandemic has turned everyone a little feral, the Planning Board’s full moon hit sometime between the methadone clinic and the marijuana legalization, and stubbornly refuses to wane. While some seats changed hands over the years (partly due to the way the town correctly handled these situations), the core problem remains the same: we have a Planning Board today that is simply not up to the challenge posed by a town experiencing significant growth.

The biggest developments in front of the Planning Board as of late are Singletary Arms, the mixed-use apartment complex at the old Lapham Woolen Mill, and the housing complex at Rice Road. Both have received plenty of attention from townsfolk and the surrounding area along with multiple stories in this newspaper, and both have gone through extensive approvals, denials, and appeals over the last year. Singletary Arms, at least as I write this, is in the middle of a Department of Environmental Protection appeal, but has more or less gotten through the system despite its hassles in front of the Planning Board. Rice Road, however, is a whole other story.

The development off Rice Road is a proposed series of townhouses on land not far from the railroad tracks off Providence Street. There is a small pond nearby, and the wooded area is known by some as a pretty decent spot to observe nature. The residents of Rice Road are understandably concerned with the impact of these townhouses on their neighborhood. They worry about the size of the development, they worry about its impact on the wetlands and woodlands, and they worry about the possible increase in traffic that dozens of new residential units might bring to a relatively quiet area.

The Planning Board, never failing to rally behind a populist cause, is happy to sling some arrows at the developer as a result.

The developer, Steven Venincasa, builds a lot in Millbury. This is part of the problem for our Planning Board, you see, as Mr. Venincasa builds residential units in a town people want to live in, and many on our Planning Board would prefer fewer people move to Millbury. While many of the old timers decry the town moving on from its bustling mill village days, outsiders can’t seem to move here fast enough, so, time and time again, Venincasa and other builders come before the Planning Board with good plans and better intentions, and the Planning Board does everything they can think of to scuttle them.

The plans they hate, like Cobblestone Village off Howe Ave, end up being nice and modern-looking residential areas that do not stay vacant for long, proving the board wrong over and over. Another development, the Canal Street apartment complex currently under construction near Windle Field, brought along plenty of hand-wringing as if an old and empty old train yard is a better use for the land. The plan for Singletary Arms restores and preserves a historic monument in West Millbury, but you would think the builders were simply digging a hole and letting the dilapidated mill fall into it by the way people react. People are still cranky about the traffic circles, and it’s been four years since they were installed.

And now Rice Road - first, I’ve looked at the plans, folks, and it’s going to be a net positive for the nearby residents. More importantly, however, is that Venincasa has been extremely generous with both his time and his plans for the property. In response to neighborhood concerns, he reduced the overall number of units, worked with the town to reduce the impact on the pond (including removing units near it entirely), offered to widen Rice Road, will donate some money for our parks... none of this is good enough for our Planning Board, who insist that Venincasa pony up for a railroad crossing gate that no one else wants and that Providence-Worcester Railroad removed decades ago.

The January 24, 2022 meeting is a shameful display from our elected officials. Terry Burke Dotson, who led the charge against the methadone clinic and was previously known for sponsoring the state’s first bylaw to regulate the electromagnetic waves from power lines (yes, really), doesn’t care about Robert’s Rules of Order and doesn’t care about what the law has to say about these developments and their construction. Rich Gosselin, the chairman, cannot corral any of the conversations in play and chose to simply cut off any discussion on Rice Road (including the waivers they’re looking for) instead of holding a vote for a plan that has languished in approval hell for nearly a year, even while Mat Ashmankas tried in vain to bring them to consideration. The lawyer for the developer somehow remained collected and professional during this exchange, and he deserves some kind of trophy, because I would have lost my mind.

The meeting on the 24th was maybe the worst I’ve seen yet, and it’s been bad for a while.

This isn’t new. Terry Burke Dotson wanted to pull the Board of Selectmen into executive session to try and get people fired, and has derailed Planning Board meetings numerous times because of her personal concerns surrounding when developers send communications to the town as opposed to the legal concerns she should be worried about. The board acts as if they have the right and responsibility to say whether or not we should grow as a town, and apparently believes the best use of their time is to squeeze whatever concessions they can from whoever comes in front of them.

Of the five elected members, we have two that are simply not up for the challenge of being a member of a Planning Board, one who definitely gets it but cannot get a word in edgewise, and two who just have to sit through a circus every other week. It’s difficult to see what is happening and not demand the whole lot of them resign, to be blunt. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Selectman Chris Naff spoke at a recent Charter Review Committee meeting (disclosure: I am the chair of that group) to propose turning the Planning Board into an appointed, rather than elected, board. This would allow for the town to bring in voices who would otherwise lack the time or wherewithal to run an election campaign, and provide some baseline level of competency to the proceedings. Auburn and Shrewsbury both have appointed boards, and the results speak for themselves - Auburn, since switching a decade ago, has an easier time developing businesses and residents in a community previously reliant on a dying mall, and Shrewsbury is one of the nicer towns in Worcester County period.

I’m not saying that appointed boards mean better results, but I would rather go to another dog hearing than ever sit through a meeting like the January 24th one again. The Millbury Planning Board, as currently constituted, is simply not qualified to handle the business that comes in front of it, and the town - and the region - is worse off as a result.

It’s not about Rice Road or West Millbury anymore, it’s about our reputation as a community and our ability to grow and adjust to the times we’re in. It’s easy to blame voters, but it’s a cop-out, because it’s been some time since we had a competitive race for Planning Board. I get that running for office is not easy, and is not fun, but the situation here is beyond the pale, and something needs to change.

We need a Planning Board that is up for the challenge. The one we have ain’t it.

Jeff Raymond is a 30-plus-year resident of Millbury. Contact him by email at Follow him on Twitter: @jeffinmillbury.