Tucked among marshlands, winding residential roads, and Colonial New England homes, Scituate businesses sit like pennies in a jar of quarters.
In this quaint seaside community, commercial properties are outnumbered by residential parcels nearly 46 to 1, and despite the revitalization of many commercial parts of town over the last decade, economic development still lags behind other South Shore communities.
Yet locals are hopeful that the town is on the threshold of growth. The catalyst could be a study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency serving 101 communities in Greater Boston, that will look at how much business can be brought in to Scituate and where it can be bolstered.
“You could make the argument that everything’s been tried at one time or another, or proposed, and some never got off the ground; some went to vote and didn’t pass. The point is everyone has an opinion,” said Chris McConaughey, chairman of Scituate’s Economic Development Commission. “What I hope to get out of this study is a point of view that is free of opinion and predisposition” on how to bring more business to town.
As community members wait to sort out this master planning vision, the possibilities may seem endless.
There’s North Scituate, for example, or the green stretch of trees and undergrowth along busy Route 3A, areas near the Greenbush commuter line, and Scituate Harbor. McConaughey rattled off suggestions for business development.
There’s never been a shortage of opinions. What McConaughey wants are facts.
“What we’re hoping is our opinions and recommendations can be more informed and we can start to . . . come up with some tangible proposals that we can support with objective, quantitative data,” McConaughey said. “Otherwise, you get into a qualitative, opinion-based discussion over what the town should do.”
Proponents of growth will have to contend with wary residents, who fear the extinction of the “Green Belt” along 3A, or the devolution to industry from picturesque village districts.
“People are afraid of change,” said Ann Burbine, a Scituate business owner and member of the Economic Development Committee. “They don’t like it, they are very suspect, and it has to be done in such a way that everyone is informed and it’s in everyone’s best interest.”
The $41,500 study, jointly paid for by the town ($24,000) and the agency ($17,500), will be done in two parts, said Matthew Smith, a regional planner with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
The first is to make a sort of business profile for the town, figuring out the existing business climate, natural business draws like tourism or maritime industry, the demographic and socioeconomic factors, as well as trends and opportunities.
This phase will be completed by December, Smith said.
Part two, to be completed early next year, will seek out public opinion and draw up a final list of strategies and recommendations.
“We’ll be looking at everything — zoning changes, tweaks that could encourage economic development,” Smith said. “We’ll be looking at it comprehensively, and coming up with rights and recommendations that are appropriate and respect the character and quality of life that’s currently in Scituate.”
Smith wouldn’t offer a guess at the changes ahead, but Selectman Tony Vegnani has hopes for more nuanced changes.
“There are parking issues, traffic issues, many components that will be brought into it. It may be bolstering stuff in the harbor, using assets of our town for other reasons as opposed to saying we need a Target on Route 3A,” Vegnani said
Whatever is done, Nico Afanasenko said, it’s overdue. The president of the Scituate Chamber of Commerce and a chiropractor said that in the past 10 years, Scituate has lagged behind other towns in the area.
For upward of 20 years, town assessors noted, 95.5 percent of the property tax burden has been borne by homeowners.
“Unfortunately, the revenue and size of the commercial base of Scituate specifically is not keeping up with population growth as well as neighboring towns, which have been progressive over the last five years-plus,” Afanasenko said.
Though the chamber president gave high marks for the town’s green initiatives, strong educational focus, and preservation of existing commercial areas, he longed for the progressive economic development of Hingham, which has seen a rebirth with the Hingham Shipyard, Derby Street Shoppes, and even its downtown.
His mental gaze shifted over to Cohasset, which recently welcomed a new car wash and hardware store. He also wondered aloud why Scituate — with all of its tourism draws, harbor access, fisheries, and shopper-friendly retail districts — couldn’t be more like Chatham.
“The powers that be over time have really shied away from [launching] plans ready to be implemented,” Afanasenko said. “Whether you look at Pier 44, still sitting there after three years, or the way the senior center struggled, the way we struggled to put in car washes, hardware stores, the way we failed to bring the Marine Education Center to Scituate — there are so many ways that this town has had the opportunity and has been too scared or too slow to pull the trigger on things that bode well to the economic development side of the town.”
While the town stayed put, one Greenbush business owner began moving on his own dream of economic expansion.
Though he didn’t have a concrete project, Paul Donovan, owner of South Shore Auto Parts, filed a petition for last Monday’s Town Meeting to change the zoning around his and several other nearby businesses.
The zoning would have enabled residential uses on existing commercial property, and while that may look like a step in the wrong direction for commercial growth, Donovan saw it as a way to stimulate business, such as condos with first-floor retail.
“We have an auto parts store there that’s been there for 49 years and we realized it’s really like almost a warehouse, with a retail space. We realized we could move that to somewhere else and develop the property to something that would be more significant and generate more income,” he said.
However, the Planning Board did not recommend the warrant article, and Donovan withdrew it with hopes of bringing it back at a later date.
Planning Board chairman William Limbacher said he wanted to see the Metropolitan Area Planning Council study before supporting specific zoning changes. Even if Donovan’s proposal were right for the Greenbush area, he said, it should be part of a larger plan.
Regardless of how it happens, town planner Laura Harbottle said, economic development can have a variety of benefits, not only adding to the town’s tax base and lightening the burden on homeowners, but also bringing employment opportunities, offering goods and services more locally, and maintaining vibrant, attractive retail centers.
The way Burbine sees it, there is a middle ground to be found between bringing Scituate up to its neighbors’ standards and retaining its sense of character.
“There is a lot of history here . . . unless you understand the past, you can’t move forward,’’ she said. “But we seem to be repeating ourselves. It will be interesting to see what MAPC comes up with in terms of this economic development study.”Jessica Bartlett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.