A “Visioning Session” for the future of Derry’s Route 28 brought more questions than answers to both the Planning Board and property owners, as they struggled to understand what each other wanted to know.
The Visioning Session workshop was planned after board members declined to act on a proposed General Commercial IV district for Route 28/Rockingham Road.
In several previous meetings and workshops, residents and business owners expressed criticism of the proposal for GC IV, which proposed restricting automobile-related businesses and would have continued the restriction on new housing in the area.
“We are going to start the process over, look at zoning, envision what we want to see,” Planning Director George Sioras told the board and audience at the Jan. 21 meeting. “This is like a public hearing, but more informal. We are going to focus on the issues.”
The GC IV district grew out of a request by the Town Council to look at zoning in the Route 28 south area, after plans were made to expand town water and sewer down a portion of that stretch.
“A year and a half ago, the Council made a request for us to look at that area,” Sioras said. The original request was to look at Webster’s Corner heading south, but the Council later expanded the request to all of Route 28 to the Windham line, Sioras said.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion as to limiting car sales, a lot of discussion on leaving it as it is, and some discussion on mixed use,” Sioras said. “What do we want to have in permitted uses?”
Michael Fairbanks, Council representative to the Planning Board, launched the discussion by objecting to remarks of residents that the Council has provided “little or no direction.” “The direction has been clear going back three to five years,” Fairbanks said.
Sioras agreed, saying the discussion goes back to Brad Benson’s chairmanship of the Council and a request to look at zoning and permitted uses. “The initial discussion was to go to Frost Farm and Berry Road, and then the Council said, ‘Let’s look at all of 28,’” Sioras said.
In 2013 the board began to look at a GC IV, to distinguish that area from the rest of the General Commercial district including Birch Street and Crystal Avenue. “The uses are different, the character is different,” Sioras pointed out.
But after strong opposition from residents, the board determined to put GFC IV aside and start again, he said.
Member Ann Alongi asked why housing had been taken out of General Commercial. Sioras told her, “The consensus of the board was that to expand the tax base, we have limited commercial land and so we took housing out of the commercial zone.”
Board chair David Granese said, “In November 2012 I polled the board on single-family housing, and we agreed to delete it.”
Alongi asked why the board had not considered Mixed-Use Development. “Can we handle it with the schools?” she asked.
Vice-chair John O’Connor said more housing with more children would not impact the schools in an overcrowding sense. “We have lost 2,100 students from 2000 to 2013,” he said.
But member Randy Chase said it would impact the town in taxes. “The average home in Derry pays $5,000 to $6,000 in taxes, and it costs $5,000 per child in the school system,” he said. “If the residents have three children, that’s a tax negative.”
Chase added, “We just invested millions of dollars to extend water and sewer, to promote business growth. A portion of that is lost with every house we put in.”
Alongi advocated for having commercial development at the front of the lots running along the strip, but allowing “what you want” in the rear. “We would say, ‘You can have so many feet back from the road that must be commercial, and beyond that you can do what you want,” she said.
Sioras said Route 28 is not immediately connected to a major highway and would most likely not draw big corporations. But he could see development like the medical complexes lining Tsienneto Road, he added, or retail plazas like the ones on Route 111.
But Chase told Alongi, “The problem with mixed usage is that it never works. The houses go in first, and then the people who own the houses don’t want commercial. I have watched this for decades. Due to the shortsightedness of previous boards, commercial land has been swallowed up.”
Chase added, “When zoning was first instituted in 1906, its main purpose was to separate residential from commercial.”
Referring to recent activity concerning multifamily housing, Chase said, “We almost had a brawl over an apartment building. What if you put a box store at the end of the block?”
Chase added that Route 28 formerly had mixed uses, and it was “a disaster. It split lots, it split neighborhoods.”
Sioras agreed. “We had a situation in the ‘90s where the line went down the middle of a cul-de-sac,” he said.
Sioras said in the ‘90s the Planning Board got tired of it and cleaned up the zoning, extending the commercial zones to the back property lines. “It’s not a good idea to have split zones on parcels,” he said.
“It would get us accused of spot zoning,” alternate member Marc Flattes observed.
Sheldon Wolff, a Realtor and property owner on Route 28, challenged the board: “Derry’s tax rate is extremely high. This board wants a commercial zone. What are you doing to promote it?”
Wolff added, “I hear, ‘we want,’ ‘we want,’ but I don’t hear what you’re doing to help us.”
O’Connor reminded him of the TIF (Tax Increment Finance) district concept, which is active in other parts of town, and said there are other mechanisms to help landowners. “One thing we’re doing,” Fairbanks said, “is spending $6 million to bring you water and sewer.”
Wolff countered that in his opinion. the landowners who don’t have town water and sewer are subsidizing the growth of the ones who do.
Wolff told the board it should get input from the landowners, and Granese pointed out that was the purpose of the visioning session.
“Tell us what you want to do with your property,” Granese said.
“I would like to see the board help me prosper in Derry,” Wolff said. “I would like to see water and sewer go all the way to the Windham line.”
That is part of the Master Plan, Fairbanks responded.
Morgan Hollis, a Nashua attorney who represents several of the landowners, said, “Whenever you draw a line, you are going to have conflicting uses. In every community where I work, every commercial developer understands that wherever they go, residential abutters will object. Don’t kid yourselves that you will ever remove those objections.”
Hollis asked the board what the “rush” was to change zoning.
“There is no rush,” Granese countered. “We have been working on this for years. The whole idea tonight is to listen to them, find out what they want and don’t want.”
“You are not listening to what our representative is saying,” landowner Beth Siragusa said.
Granese argued that he wanted to hear what they wanted. “We want to know what you want, we’ll have Liz (Planning Assistant Liz Robidoux) put it in a document, and we’ll come back here and discuss it,” he said.
Landowners expressed concern that there were no documents to work from and Granese said that was because GC IV was off the table and the board needed their input to create a new document.
“You need to put residential back in in some fashion,” Hollis said. “It needs to go in some of my clients’ back yards.”
O’Connor pointed out that keeping residential out of a commercial district wasn’t just a position of the Planning Board. In the Master Plan visioning session of 2010, a majority of the residents attending and giving input said they didn’t want residential in that area of town.
“It was overwhelmingly removed,” O’Connor said.
Melissa Polk, representing her parents Marge and Wilbur Palmer, contested Chase’s idea that mixed use doesn’t work. “That vision is not shared by the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission,” she said, adding that she had spoken with Executive Director David Preece and that he was an advocate of “smart growth and urban development.”
“That works well in some areas,” O’Connor said.
Granese said, “It all comes back to we don’t have a plan in front of us because GC IV is off the table. With all due respect to Mr. Preece, he doesn’t know the lay of the land here like we do.”
Resident Dr. Timothy Butterfield said, “I know we have a tax problem, and it’s not your fault. Going down 28 with water and sewer is a good idea. Thank you.”
But he added he didn’t think Alongi’s proposal of mixed use was met with “openness. Mixed use would give you what you want, give the larger landowners what they want.”
Hollis said, “I agree with your vision of commercial, but not with throwing the baby out with the bathwater. My clients’ back land is useless for commercial. Who’s going to put commercial back there? It’s a square peg in a round hole.”
Butterfield suggested commercial with apartments or condos above it, or possibly senior housing. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a three-bedroom home,” he said.
Beth Siragusa said, “Why can’t we have 200 feet of commercial, then houses?”
Granese said he wasn’t totally against mixed use. “We are trying to redo the sins of the past,” he said, referring to commercial land being eaten up by apartment complexes.
Jim Smith, who owns a motorcycle dealership at the junction of 28 and Kilrea, said, “I’d like to see you leave automotive in there.”
Harlan “Buster” Brown, owner of two parcels on 28, said, “I can see the concern of the board and the town. There is nothing I want more than to make my property more valuable. Town water and sewer are coming, but they’re not there yet. Until then, I think you should deal individually with each landowner.”
The board will distill the comments into a document and discuss it in a future meeting.