Lexington Center in the summer
To create the updated Comprehensive Plan, the CPAC sought to synthesize extensive public input about community goals for Lexington’s future into a single document. (Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver)

After dozens of meetings and almost five years of community engagement and drafting, Lexington has a detailed policy document on the books encompassing present-day Town goals and priorities across 10 different subject areas to guide its future physical development. 

The 316-page document unanimously adopted in a 5-0 vote at Wednesday’s Planning Board meeting outlines the Town’s goals in eight areas required by state law ranging from Housing to Economic Vitality to Transportation & Circulation. Lexington’s updated plan also includes two additional goal areas, Diversity & Inclusion and Sustainability & Resiliency, not required by state law but which Lexington “felt [were] important to also include beyond what’s required,” Planning Director Abby McCabe said.

The plan, called “LexingtonNext,”  includes 150+ recommended strategies and more than 300 potential actions for implementing goals across these 10 areas.

The Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC), a volunteer body established in December 2017 and led by co-chairs Sarah Felton and Chris Herbert, has carried this project through multiple delays and a pandemic. Lexington’s last Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2002 and 2003, though a Comprehensive Plan should be formally updated “at least every 10-15 years,” according to the newly adopted plan.

To create the updated Comprehensive Plan, the CPAC sought to synthesize extensive public input about community goals for Lexington’s future into a single document. To collect that input, members organized several public forums and community events and conducted more than 60 interviews with Town staff and leaders, in addition to many forms of digital outreach. The CPAC’s public engagement process included two public forums focused exclusively on Housing (Goal #2) and Economic Vitality (Goal #3), as soaring housing costs, a shortage of local housing variety and pandemic burdens on small businesses have helped drive these two complex challenges to the forefront of Lexington’s community conversations over the past few years.

This summer, the Planning Board reviewed each of the 10 Comprehensive Plan subject areas in detail over five public-forum-style sessions. The board also received more than 60 written comments on the plan from members of the public, which were incorporated into the final draft by Town staff.

Volume I, “the Plan,” contains the meat of the updated Comprehensive Plan. But the Planning Board will still need to adopt two additional components which function as “reference materials” to the plan before the CPAC’s work is officially complete, McCabe explained: Volume II (Inventory and Assessment of Existing Resources) and Volume III (Documentation of Public Input). 

The Comprehensive Plan is not a binding legal document, but it is intended to guide community decision-making and actions. For instance, the Planning Board intends to consult this plan when it establishes its Work Plan each year; while the Planning Board can choose which action items to tackle in pursuit of achieving the outlined goals, those goals should inform all of its work.

“A lot of people criticize comprehensive plans because it’s not 100% clear what role they play under the Zoning Act,” Associate Planning Board Member Michael Leon said. “At the end of the day, what does this really mean with regard to the day-to-day operations of a city or town and the planning process that goes on? I think everybody in Lexington appreciates the fact that this is supposed to be a guiding or guidance document – one that still is subject to ongoing modifications and changes.”

“To consider [the plan] a living document, I think, is the key thing at this moment,” Planning Board Vice Chair Michael Schanbacher said before the plan was adopted.

To facilitate concrete action in the future, each of the plan’s 10 goals are broken down into several strategies. Each strategy is linked to potential action items, existing resources and funding, leads and partners. Additionally, the plan identifies a suggested timeline for each strategy, from “immediate” (within the next one to five years) to “intermediate” (within the next five to 10 years) to “future/re-evaluate in 10 years” (10 to 20 years), as well as categories for strategies already underway. 

The plan also includes some strategies marked with a “ripe apple” icon to indicate “low-hanging fruit…with a relatively low cost, low level of effort, and desirable impacts,” per the document. For instance, within Economic Vitality (Goal #3), “streamline the permitting process” is identified as both an “ongoing” Town initiative and “low-hanging fruit” in the plan. 

Assistant Town Manager for Development Carol Kowalski thanked the Planning Board for pushing the plan over the finish line. “This has taken up so much of my life the last few years, through so many planning directors that I’ve had to hire to take this on,” she said. “I’ve been to every one of the meetings, so I can’t tell you how much this means to me, that the board has the confidence in the plan to proceed.”

McCabe, the latest of these planning directors, agreed. “It’s a really big accomplishment… voting on it: this is the first time you’ve adopted a plan since 20 years ago,” she said. “It’s bigger than it may feel at this current moment.”

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