Not everything is wrong with Pepperell’s commercial zoning. When the predecessor of Pepperell’s current zoning map was drawn up in 1974, the commercial district was confined to the existing business areas, namely Railroad Square (the railroad still ran through it in those days) and Babbitasset Village, (Main Street between the river and the railroad depot), as well as the east side of the Rotary, which featured a strip mall (Lordens) and an insurance office.
After World War II, lots of suburban towns created overly large business districts. These so-called strip zones encompassed long stretches of state highways, in most cases far more commercial land than the town would need in the next fifty years. The result was the ugly commercial strips we’re all so familiar with. Pepperell, in its wisdom, refused to follow this course, and so lower Main Street (and not even all of that) is the only commercial street in town. That’s good. Unlike Dracut, Billerica, and many other places, Pepperell isn’t plagued with miles of tacky commercial strips all over town.
Unfortunately, Main Street isn’t a state-maintained highway. We have only one of these in town, Rte. 119. In their admirable zeal to confine Pepperell’s business district to the existing down town and its adjacent residential districts, the town mothers and fathers in 1974 failed to zone even one foot of Rte. 119 as commercial. This left no room at all for larger scale commercial projects, such as shopping centers. Most towns in our regions (Groton and Townsend, for example) located their shopping centers on a state-maintained highway (in this case, Rte. 119), on the edges of town. We could have done this, too (few lived on Rte. 119 forty years ago) but we didn’t. Now it’s probably too late to rezone this road.
Another problem: although (contrary to what you sometimes hear) Pepperell has a commercial district large enough to meet the town’s needs, it’s in the wrong place. The entire district is already occupied by buildings, mostly historic nineteenth-century houses on small, shallow lots, that must be demolished to construct parking lots or new buildings, such as banks, pharmacies, or car washes. A lot of nice buildings have already been destroyed here, with more to come. An attempt to establish an historic district in the commercial zone, which could have provided some guidance to this process, was soundly defeated in 1987.