ACUSHNET – Following a presentation by Town Planner Henry Young on Monday night, selectmen said they were willing to further investigate the possibility of creating a new “bypass road” connecting South Main Street to Slocum Street.

If, that is, the three principal landowners of undeveloped land along the Acushnet River were willing to support the concept.

The potential benefits of the concept are numerous, Young suggested with a slide show – including the easing of traffic congestion along perhaps the busiest stretch of road in town, and allowing the future development of up to 10 new commercial lots on several large parcels of vacant land on the west side of South Main Street.

The idea developed as a result of discussions between town officials and MassHighway about ways of possibly improving safety conditions at the intersection of Main Street and South Main Street, probably the most heavily used intersection in town. The two roads are the state’s responsibility for maintenance and snow plowing, being the local portion of State Route 105.

Young noted that MassHighway has long been interested in getting the town to take over responsibility for that portion of the state road, overseen and maintained by MassHighway’s District 5 office in Taunton. Promising state aid for the design and construction of a new “downtown bypass road” would be one way to compensate the town for taking over South Main Street, he suggested.

The new road would help reduce traffic during peak hours, and improve safety at the busy intersection beside Town Hall, the town planner told selectmen. “You’re solving a lot of the problems of South Main Street, especially by removing the (big) trucks” that frequently use that stretch of road, he explained.

The new street could also be “a catalyst for economic development,” he said, as the roughly half-mile of roadway under consideration would run through land zoned for business and commercial use. The road would create frontage for probably six to eight substantial business lots under current zoning regulations, he indicated.

The value of the undeveloped land would undoubtedly increase with road frontage, bringing higher tax revenues to the town, and new businesses and jobs to the community, Young suggested. It would also be “very beneficial” to the property owners, who could sell their landlocked acreage for considerably more money with a road running by it.

Whether those benefits to the community would outweigh the “very expensive” cost of the town taking over maintenance and plowing responsibilities for South Main Street should be part of a feasibility study of the bypass road concept, Chairman of Selectmen Kevin Gaspar Sr. said. He cited a rough estimate of perhaps $2 million just to pave South Main Street “from start to finish.”

The most likely route would have the bypass road start near the P.J. Keating Corp. site on South Main Street, running in a northwesterly direction behind the Century House property, and end up near the Acushnet Company site on Slocum Street. Both businesses own substantial acreage between the current road and the river, with a private landowner also owning property in the area, Young said.

Selectmen advised the town planner that he should contact the primary property owners to discuss the idea, and see if they would be willing to support the project. The town would have to acquire a right of way from each landowner to undertake the effort.

If the talks prove fruitful, the town could undertake a limited feasibility study to develop an estimate of costs, Gaspar said. Young said most of the construction costs would be underwritten by state and federal highway funds by getting the project on the regional Transportation Improvement Plan.

At the end of discussions, selectmen voted unanimously to have Young pursue further “exploration” of the concept of the bypass road, and report back to them.

The board has previously been supportive of seeking ways to encourage new commercial development, as more than 90 percent of the town’s total tax burden is borne by residential property owners.

MARIJUANA REFERENDUM SET

Whether future business growth will ever include commercial development related to the cultivation, production, and sale of recreational marijuana to adults remains to be seen. With a town decision on permitting such production and retail sales coming up in 2018, selectmen voted 2-1 to put a local referendum question on the ballots for the annual town election in April.

Town Administrator Brian Noble noted that the 2016 statewide referendum question allowing recreational marijuana sales in Massachusetts generated the state law requiring individual communities to vote on whether to permit such businesses in their communities. Fourteen communities have already voted to prohibit recreational marijuana production and sales, he reported.

Selectman Michael Cioper and Gaspar voted to put the question to voters this April, while Selectman Roger Cabral cast a symbolic no vote, suggesting that the statewide approval given in 2016 should be sufficient authorization for local permitting, as “the people have already spoken” on the matter.

Gaspar said the issue is very complex, involving cultivation and processing facilities, retail storefronts, and permitted use in licensed private establishments similar to cigar bars. “It’s important, because of the narrow margin of the state vote,” to have local voters weigh in on the issue with a referendum question, he added.

Noble agreed that cultivation and possession of small amounts is now legal in Massachusetts, though use in public places and areas where tobacco is prohibited remains illegal. Like alcohol, having “open containers” of marijuana in a motor vehicle is also prohibited, he noted.

State regulations for medicinal marijuana growers and dispensaries are in place, but those for commercial cultivation, processing, and retail sales to adults are still being developed. The newly-appointed state Cannabis Control Commission is charged with having recreational marijuana licensing regulations in place by the summer of 2018.