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Revving up for growth

Wrentham officials hope proposed zoning changes will attract more commercial interest in undeveloped land along Route 1. An abandoned property (left) on Wrentham’s northern stretch of Route 1 stands in stark contrast to the Patriots Place complex next to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Wrentham officials hope proposed zoning changes will attract more commercial interest in undeveloped land along Route 1. An abandoned property (left) on Wrentham’s northern stretch of Route 1 stands in stark contrast to the Patriots Place complex next to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. (PHOTOS BY Bill Greene/GLOBE STAFF)
By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2012
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On Route 1 in Foxborough, Gillette Stadium anchors the gleaming new shops at Patriot Place. A few miles to the south in Plainville, the highway is dotted with big-box stores like Target and Lowe’s.

Sandwiched between them on Wrentham’s stretch of Route 1? Not much.

“It needs to go through a bit of a reinvention and a bit of a reinvigoration,” said William ­Ketcham, Wrentham’s town administrator. While there are some popular restaurants along the town’s share of the highway, he said, much of it “has sort of a Sixties look to it.”

Wrentham officials are pushing for a zoning change that would create a new highway commercial district on Route 1 between the Foxborough town line and Thurston Street. The land south of Thurston Street is already zoned for large commercial developments, but the northern stretch has the same zoning as Wrentham’s town center.

The proposal, which will go before Town Meeting voters on June 11, is just the latest in a series of zoning changes aimed at accommodating commercial development in Wrentham, known regionally as the host of the Wrentham Village Premium Outlets mall off Route 1A and Interstate 495.

“People move to Wrentham for the character, for the environment, for the schools,” said Paige Duncan, the town planner. “We don’t want to change any of that, but we do want to find a way to continue to offer the same services. The one tool we have is our land and economic development.”

Like many area communities, Wrentham has struggled along with the economy, cutting staff in ­recent years in the police, fire, school, and public works departments. Officials sought a temporary tax increase last year that would pay off some of the town’s debt and free up revenue for operating expenses, but voters defeated the proposal.

Jerry McGovern, chairman of Wrentham’s ­Finance Committee, said rezoning Route 1 is “the perfect opportunity” to bring in new tax dollars. “That route is less intrusive to the character of the town,” he said.

The zoning change being considered next month would increase the minimum lot size on the town’s northern stretch of Route 1 from 10,000 square feet to 80,000 square feet. It would also require adjacent businesses to connect their parking lots to minimize the number of cars hopping on and off the busy highway. ­Under the proposed new zoning, buildings could rise to 40 feet, a jump of only 5 feet from the previous maximum, but enough to accommodate a hotel, Duncan said.

John Carroll, a Wrentham resident who owns the Red Rooster Pub on the affected stretch of Route 1, said he is in favor of the proposed change, although it probably would not change his ability to further develop his property.

“Some of the larger lots, it’s really going to open them up to some more possibilities,” ­Carroll said. “There’s a lot of idle land that I ­believe is going to be positively impacted.”

In addition to the proposed zoning change on Route 1, there have been significant changes to zoning on Route 1A. Last November, a group of residents living on the stretch between Interstate 495 and the Plainville town line successfully lobbied Town Meeting to change 42 acres of their land from residential to commercial zoning. The residents told the town that they were unable to sell their houses to residential buyers, and they are now marketing the land to developers.

In 2010, the town changed zoning on land across from the Wrentham Village Premium Outlets to allow for commercial buildings up to 95,000 square feet, up from a previous maximum of 37,000 square feet. The site is under development and is expected to bring in more than $200,000 a year in additional property taxes.

As part of the project, developers are paying for the design of a new I-495 ramp, which Duncan said should relieve traffic jams at the interchange.

Plainville’s town administrator, Joseph ­Fernandes, said the development along Route 1 in his town would have been impossible without changes to zoning that allowed for large-scale construction.

“It’s been a huge shot in the arm for the town financially,” he said, adding that the new tax revenue brought in by the development is “in the vicinity of a million dollars” a year.

“Rezoning that area in Wrentham creates the opportunities that our rezoning did for us,” ­Fernandes said.

But John Zizza, a former Wrentham selectman, said he is skeptical that new zoning will lead to business development.

“They talk about how this is the panacea, the revival, and all these acres just sit there and linger,” Zizza said. “What businesses have opened in five years? We can’t even get the businesses that are permitted in this town to open, so what are they talking about?”

Zizza also pointed out that Wrentham’s stretch of Route 1 is hugged by hills and wetlands, making development there more challenging than in surrounding towns.

Indeed, new business growth in Wrentham has been insignificant in recent years, said the town assessor, Steven McCarthy. The largest recent addition was a new Blooming­dale’s at the outlets mall, he said, which pays around $44,000 a year in taxes.

But if the proposed zoning changes on Route 1 are approved, “you could have several buildings like that or even bigger,” McCarthy said.

Duncan acknowledged that the weak economy has held back business growth, but said that is not a reason not to pass the zoning changes.

“Do I think that the reason Route 1 has not developed is because of the zoning? No,” Duncan said. “But do I think it someday will develop and the zoning right now is inappropriate? Yes.”

Jack Lank, president of the United Regional Chamber of Commerce, expressed similar optimism.

“I would like to see the change happen, because that will open up opportunities for companies to come in, construction to be done, and put people back to work,” Lank said. “If we can give local residents a chance to pick up some work and to bring some business to our region, those are tax dollars that will go to the town of Wrentham. I think it would be a good thing for the area.”

Calvin Hennick can be e-mailed at calvinhennick@yahoo.com.

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