The Sturbridge Agricultural and Equestrian Center is envisioned as a state-of-the-art, green complex featuring athletic fields, farming programs, festival facilities, and an innovative racetrack for horses.
The athletic fields would include a community pavilion, restrooms, and a snack bar open to all ages. On a Saturday, play could kick off in the morning with the youngest youth soccer games and continue through an adult softball league in the evening.
Nature trails would wind around community gardens. Those gardens would help support a Farmer’s Market. It would be a center of activity for youth clubs such as the 4-H, Future Farmers of America (FFA), Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts.
Residents would be able to gather for weekend festivals and enjoy dinner at a local restaurant on site. Events at the center would generate business for other local restaurants and hotels.
There would also be dozens of new jobs for residents along with $1 million in new annual revenue and benefits to the town.
But before any of that happens and as the project progresses, Sturbridge residents will have a say in what they want to have on the site. One of the biggest opportunities for residents is approval of an overlay district in a vote on Oct. 28. This overlay district is crucial for the project to progress.
An overlay district essentially adds zoning regulation that ensures that development will be beneficial to the town now and into the future. While zoning regulations crucially determine such things as how big a lot must be for a building, the height and density, and the setbacks, they may not be adequate for a specific area or project. In these situations, an overlay district can be added to allow for more specific control to ensure that projects there fit with the character and vision of the town.
In Sturbridge, voters are being asked to adopt a proposed Agricultural Entertainment Overlay District for an area off I-84. It would cover about 380 acres in the southwest corner of the town on the Connecticut border. For reference, Sturbridge encompasses 24,000 acres, of which 6,000 acres are held in conservation.
This overlay district will define what can be built on the property. It would open the way for the athletic facilities, community amenities, restaurant, a festival facility, a specially designed safer racetrack, and facilities to care for horses throughout their lives.
While the regulations say what is allowed, they would also be very specific about what can not be built. Slot machines would expressly be prohibited and retail development would be limited. That means the land couldn’t be used for a casino or a strip mall.
Approval of the overlay district is not approval of the project. It puts into place the zoning regulations that would allow for the project, but residents still have control over what happens. The town must approve every facet of the project. The applicant would still need to provide detailed impact studies showing the effect of such things as noise and parking. And, the applicant would have to satisfy the requirements of both the site plan and special permitting bylaws.
In voting to approve the overlay district with this careful design, Sturbridge residents would be taking charge of their future. They would be defining how this area can be used. They would make way for thoughtful development that will benefit the town in the near term and for many generations to come.