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A longing look down Route 1

Wrentham officials, turning an eye toward major construction projects going up along Route 1 in neighboring Foxborough and Plainville, are considering zoning changes to encourage businesses to build on the town's own less-developed stretch of the highway.

"It just makes sense to see what's happening there and see what kind of spinoff there's going to be," said Patrick Moore, the chairman of the Planning Board. Moore said he wants the town to get "the best and highest use" from the land, meaning development that brings in extra tax dollars without straining town services.

But Moore said the town's zoning, which dates to the 1970s, is outdated, and must be changed to accommodate the types of businesses the town wants to attract. Current zoning prohibits buildings larger than 10,000 square feet. "If you want to see what our zoning gets us, drive up and down Route 1," he said.

The Planning Board began discussions on rezoning the highway last week, and several property owners turned out to express their support for change.

"Route 1 was intended for business," said Marty Finkel, who owns about 28 acres of undeveloped land along the road. "We're not talking about a neighborhood here. We're talking about a highway."

Finkel acknowledged that his land will probably increase in value if it is zoned to allow for more development, but he said the town will also benefit. Currently, he said, "the town is losing tax dollars."

Like other area towns, Wrentham has struggled to maintain services in the face of rising costs. But Selectman John Zizza said he isn't convinced that new business development is the answer to Wrentham's financial problems.

"I just haven't seen much of any proof," Zizza said. "There are isolated instances of commercial things that help, because they are benign in their effect." He cited research-and-development facilities that pay high taxes because of their sophisticated facilities but do not generate much traffic.

Zizza said the town should be careful not to allow projects that, while bringing in tax revenue, create traffic problems. He specifically cited casinos and water parks.

"It's a quality-of-life concern," Zizza said. "All of the public services in the world are meaningless if you don't want to live here anymore."

Zizza said he thinks Wrentham's stretch of Route 1 looks better than the same road in neighboring towns. "Do you think 4 miles of car dealers and stadiums is better looking than trees?" he asked. "We look undeveloped, but we look better."

Selectman Edward Goddard said he would like to see a mix of retailers, office parks, and research facilities along the road.

"I don't want Wrentham's Route 1 to look like North Attleborough's Route 1, where you have shopping malls and every corner is a Best Buy or a Christmas Tree Shop," Goddard said.

Town Meting voters several years ago shot down several proposed zoning changes, and Moore said his board would put forth just one or two zoning changes at a time to allow for more public discussion. Town planner Paige Duncan said she hopes to put the first changes to voters at the spring Town Meeting.

Moore said residents and officials will have an opportunity to express their views on what should and should not be built. "We're not trying to put anything in," he said. "We're trying to figure out what the town wants there and go from there."

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