Billerica leaders must decide whether to press forward with plans to renovate the town's historic center after voters at Monday's special election rejected an ambitious $14 million proposal to update sidewalks, sink utility wiring underground, and reroute traffic.
The landmark vote brought 40 percent of the town's 26,217 registered voters to the polls, more than double the percentage that typically turns out for local elections, said Town Clerk Shirley Schult. The referendum marked the first time in Billerica's recorded history that a proposal approved at Town Meeting was rejected by a townwide vote.
The vote was 9,086 to 1,469, with the overwhelming majority of voters, roughly 86 percent, opposing the town's plans to borrow $9.8 million for the project. The remainder of the money needed to reshape Billerica Center was to come from the town's free cash account ($2.3 million) and the state Department of Transportation ($1.9 million).
The vote at the ballot box nullifies the decision just three weeks earlier, when 69 percent of Town Meeting members threw their support behind the plan and passed a $9.8 million bond authorization. The Town Meeting vote was 133 to 59.
Reached by phone Tuesday morning, Andrew Deslaurier, chairman of the Billerica Board of Selectmen, said it was too early to know the town's next steps.
"I don't think we have an exact idea," Deslaurier said. "Clearly, people didn't agree with the entire plan, but I think there is real merit to redeveloping the center, have it be more functional so more people can enjoy it. Maybe the way we solve some of those things will be different, given the vote yesterday."
The proposal that went down to defeat would have returned two-way traffic to Boston Road, reduced Concord Road to a single lane, and made the center more pedestrian-friendly, with the addition of new granite curbing and sidewalks, ornamental traffic lights, and street lamps.
"It's difficult to present a question of this nature on a referendum ballot," said Town Manager John C. Curran, who had lobbied hard for the project, leading more than two dozen public presentations on the proposal over the course of 18 months. "You're asking people to make a decision to spend $9.8 million on an 18-word sentence on a ballot, with no description of the plan. There's no way people have enough information to make an educated decision."
Curran noted that in the days leading up to the special election, his office was inundated with calls from residents with questions about the project.
In that time, the reconstruction plans, which are posted on the town website, got just 600 hits. In contrast, a YouTube video opposing the project got 5,000 hits in the days leading up to the election and nearly 20,000 hits in the two to three weeks the video was online.
"People were asking why we were going to pave the common, why we were going to cut down the trees, why we were going to raise their taxes by $400, why we were going to be tearing down the gazebo — and we were not going to do any of these things," said Curran, adding that the project would not affect the local property tax rate, because the new bond would replace debt that has recently been paid off.
The five-member Board of Selectmen could revisit their vision for Billerica Center as early as Dec. 3, its next regularly scheduled meeting. Any decision that requires a town appropriation would have to be presented at a future Town Meeting, Deslaurier said. For now, the free cash that had been appropriated for the project will remain untouched.
Foes say they hope that the selectmen will take the referendum results as a cue and scale back their plans for the center.
"I've been in business here for 15 years, and, sure, there's a small window of heavy traffic in the center of town during the afternoon rush hour, but it's not horrendous," said Tony Borrelli, owner of the Center Cafe. "I don't know if new construction or bulldozing the center of town is the answer. They could coordinate the lights better, and that would go a long way."
As local leaders consider their next steps, residents who opposed the reconstruction plan are enjoying their victory at the ballot box.
"It makes me feel proud," said George Simolaris Jr., 55, the Andover Road resident who spearheaded the campaign against the project. "More than anything, I feel relieved. This vote means that the character and charm of our town center will be preserved."