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Opponents hope traffic solution will jam up Freetown mall

Road widening mandated by judge may require costly new bridge

FREETOWN - When officials from KGI Properties LLC heard about an 80-acre parcel of land on a former fly ash dump with access to a major highway, they saw opportunity - a prime location for a shopping center with two large retail stores.

But when Brian R. Dunning, who lives in the sleepy Payne's Cove area, studied KGI's plans for the 450,000-square-foot "Payne's Crossing" development, he saw what he considers to be a pending disaster for Freetown.

The battle has raged ever since. Many residents, convinced that a Lowe's home improvement store and a Wal-Mart are headed their way, have rallied to block the development they fear will choke their roadways, endanger threatened turtles, and pollute the bay. Their Assonet Bay Action Committee now boasts more than 300 supporters.

It is, by their own estimation, an uphill battle. Dunning offers this sober evaluation: "I think the odds are in favor of the developer. But it's a little bit like David and Goliath. I just know that if this goes in, the town will be forever changed."

Historically, Freetown has not been one to limit growth. It adopted basic zoning districts only 10 years ago - long after most communities had them in place.

KGI and longtime property owner Ken Rezendes have been working to gain approval from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs but have had setbacks. Opponents say that except for a state review required by the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, they have very little ammunition.

Payne's Crossing, if built, is expected to draw an additional 9,000 to 11,300 vehicles to the town each day, making traffic a key issue.

In a decision released Monday, Ian A. Bowles, the state's environmental affairs secretary, ordered the proponents to go back to the drawing board on the traffic issues and prepare a second supplemental final environmental impact report.

Massachusetts Highway Department officials panned portions of the project during the first review. They said the company's $3.3 million traffic mitigation plan, which includes three new traffic signals, won't be sufficient to prevent backups around the interchange of Route 24 and South Main Street at Exit 9.

They said it would be especially problematic during holiday traffic and in emergencies.

Bowles's decision states that it is possible the company could revise its plans to deal with Phase 1 of the project - about 377,000 square feet of retail space.

However, he said, Phase 2 of the project, which includes another 80,690 square feet of retail space, cannot be built without widening South Main Street (also Route 79 in that area) to four lanes.

That would require the developers to replace the bridge on Route 24 that passes over the road, a move that opponents hope will be too costly to consider.

Dunning said that traffic is "the number one issue for most of us," and predicts that without another downsizing of the project the area will be "nothing but gridlock" from Exit 10 to Exit 8 off Route 24.

Adding to the problem: the volume of tractor-trailers from the Stop & Shop Distribution Center just south of the project and a deteriorating stone bridge to the north at Elm Street, he said.

"South Main Street is too. . . small a road," Dunning said.

Andrew F. Rockett, a principal owner of KGI, said the company is evaluating the state's recent decision and "looking now at how to respond. We are eventually going to get the project into compliance in the eyes of the MEPA statute. The focus right now is getting the project into compliance . . . and moving forward," Rockett said.

He said that one of the options being discussed is dropping Phase 2 of the development but that no decisions have been made.

KGI formally presented its plans to residents and selectmen for the first time last week at a tense meeting attended by about 250 residents, many of whom catcalled and laughed as company officials presented their plan. KGI's Rockett told residents at the meeting the plans are still in the preliminary stages and he is confident the traffic mitigation issues can be worked out.

"We are going to try to improve our communication with the town," he said, adding, "We do plan to move forward with the development at this site." Company officials have said they are still talking to potential tenants for two large stores but won't release any names. They described the anchor stores as a home improvement store and a discount superstore that includes a grocery store.

Rezendes, the owner of KR Rezendes Inc., a construction company in Assonet, said several generations of his family live in the town and "the last thing we want to do is anything that would hurt the town."

He said he has entered into a contract with KGI, and doesn't have any second thoughts.

Carl Brodeur of Valley Road said he was dragged into the fray by nagging concerns about the environmental impacts of storm-water runoff from the capped fly ash dump - fly ash is a by-product of burning coal - on local wildlife, especially turtles.

Broduer said he has spent hours documenting the Northern diamondback terrapin, a type of aquatic turtle, in the area. The terrapins are a protected species in the state.

The town's environmental laws are stricter than the state's, he said, and he's hoping the town's Conservation Commission review of the project will provide some additional protection for the turtles.

Brodeur and residents have been concerned that the defunct dump will be disrupted during construction and that, once built, runoff from more than 1,000 parking spaces could be dangerous to the environment - even if state standards are followed.

Jim Byers, another founding member of the opposition group, maintains that studies have shown that big-box stores cost communities more for infrastructure improvements and public safety than they generate in property taxes.

"If I thought there was no chance of beating them I wouldn't be wasting my time with this," said Byers. "To put these kinds of stores here is just ridiculous."

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