The Derry Town Council will table two proposed zoning amendments that have proved to be controversial, after a series of citizens’ objections that culminated at the June 4 meeting. The Council was originally asked to approve and adopt four changes to the town’s zoning ordinance.
The first two proposed amendments were: to amend Article II, Word Usage and Definitions, to add definitions for Clinic, Bus Depot, Daycare, Health Service Facility, Library, Medical Office, Open Space, Private Educational Facility/Private School, Radio Broadcast Facility, and Sale of Travel Accommodation; and to amend Article III regarding churches.
Planning Director George Sioras said, “Two years ago, the Planning Board worked to clean up the language in some of our zoning requirements.” The Industrial IV district, which includes much of Manchester Road, had not been updated since the 1970s.
The current zoning had allowed for churches in any of the town’s 20 zoning districts. But, Sioras said, the board and staff decided to remove churches as an allowable use in the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) District. Churches are exempt from paying taxes, and as a result, there is no tax revenue from them, he explained, adding that churches would still be allowed in “19 out of our 20” districts.
The third and fourth amendments proved more problematical to the public.
The third amendment, to Article VI, Section 165-32.A, would eliminate single-family housing from the General Commercial District.
Sioras explained that last year the Town Council asked the Public Works Department to study extending water and sewer up Rockingham Road (Route 28) through Webster’s Corner south. “As part of that, the Council asked the Planning Board to look at the uses in that district,” Sioras said.
He reviewed the process, including an initial decision to eliminate automobile-related businesses, and then a modification to allow auto dealerships, service stations and repair facilities, but with a 1,000-foot buffer zone. The buffer zone was dropped by the Planning Board after strong community objections.
Under the current zoning, Sioras said, single-family homes are a permitted use in the General Commercial zone. The amendment proposes eliminating that use, reasoning that “Derry has limited commercial space.”
In the public hearing portion of the meeting, attorney Morgan Hollis of Nashua represented clients Gerard and Beth Siragusa, who own two parcels on North Main Street (Route 28).
Hollis said eliminating single-family housing would limit the flexibility for landowners in that zone. “You are one of the few towns that allows residential along with commercial, and those uses have been compatible for years,” he said.
Hollis said under the proposed change, an owner who wanted to subdivide his land to build another home would have to request a variance. While the current single-family homes are allowed to stay, it would create a hardship for the owners, who would have to go to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, he said.
Hollis suggested tabling the amendments until the Planning Board had a chance to discuss Mixed-Use Overlay Development, which is on its agenda for July 17. “This amendment,” he said, “goes against the current trend of planning, which is to keep residential with commercial.”
Siragusa spoke on his own behalf, noting that he and his wife have been fighting this for almost a year, and “Over the past 11 months, I have not heard one person come forward in favor of this.” There are 26 parcels that would be affected, he said, and all 26 owners signed a petition against it.
“I feel the Planning Board did not listen to us,” Beth Siragusa said. Dale Smith of Rochester represented his mother, who owns 40 acres on Rockingham Road, land that has been in the family for years. “This is a bull’s eye on my mother’s property,” he said. While they have no current plans to develop the land, which is adjacent to the Frost Farm, he said he and his siblings have “toyed with the idea” of building homes on the far end of the property for themselves or their children.
Dr. Timothy Butterfield, who owns property on Humphrey Road, agreed with Hollis that passing the amendments before discussing Mixed Use is “putting the cart before the horse.” “Water and sewer is a good plan, but you’re not listening to the residential component,” he said.
Butterfield said the Council had three options: a yes vote, a no vote, or passing it back to the Planning Board to be part of the discussion on Mixed Use. “That is the reasonable approach,” he said.
Resident Janet Fairbanks pointed out that the extension of water and sewer on Route 28 was originally intended as part of an economic development strategy. Single-family homes don’t bring in the tax revenue that commercial does, she said, adding, “If you want to extend water and sewer and keep the single family homes, fine – just don’t call it economic development.”
Resident and Planning Board member Randall Chase spoke in favor of the amendment. “Why the tax rate is the way it is is the result of gross mismanagement of the ordinances,” he said. “Residential growth has been allowed, unchecked, without the developers contributing to the infrastructure.”
Under current zoning, a 10-acre parcel could have six houses. With town water and sewer, the lots could be smaller, and Derry could see as many as 10 homes on 10 acres. “No place with residential development is a tax ‘plus,’” he said. Chase added, “To run water and sewer out there and then allow residential development is a gross injustice to taxpayers and a misuse of taxpayer money.”
Chase pointed out that most Council members ran on platforms of fiscal responsibility. Can residential and commercial coexist? In some cases, Chase said, but added, “The town is in a constant battle over this.” Under the proposed zoning, a homeowner can put on an addition, he said, noting, “It’s just with a separate home that you need a variance.”
He echoed Janet Fairbanks: “Don’t call it economic development.”
Councilor Neil Wetherbee said that while he respected the opinions of the Planning Board, he would like to get more information on amendments 3 and 4.
The Council voted 5-2 to accept the first two amendments, with Mark Osborne and Al Dimmock the dissenting votes.
The Council voted 7-0 to table Amendments 3 and 4. Sioras pointed out that the fourth amendment, on the office-medical-business district, was closely tied to Amendment 3.
The Council voted twice to extend its session by 10 minutes. Chase said the Planning Board had listened to residents, and in his opinion, sending the amendments back would accomplish nothing.