Youngsters attending the Derry Public Library’s Chinese New Year’s Day celebration parade through the children’s room with a 6-foot dragon and noisemakers Thursday, Feb. 19. The kids enjoyed making crafts and hearing stories about the holiday. Photo by Chris Paul
Several years ago, the state funded the CTAP (Community Technical Assistant Program) studies for local towns as part of the mitigation for the Interstate 93 expansion project. But those studies were done prior to the economic slowdown of the past decade, and according to Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission Executive Director David Preece, who recently addressed the Derry Planning Board, they did not take into account “the drop in housing as a result of the recession….We assumed the growth in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000 was going to continue, and it hasn’t.”
Housing starts are coming back, but housing values are nowhere near where they were in the years immediately before the recession. And while the I-93 expansion likely will bring some population growth, assuming jobs follow, the demographics of the state’s population are changing and residents are getting older. Retirees don’t contribute children toward the need for large schools.
Combine that with the already declining enrollment in most school districts across the state, and you would expect a serious look at reducing teaching and other staff, combining classrooms, and in some cases, closing buildings, in light of the ever rising property tax.
But that rarely happens.
While school districts can’t avoid acknowledging falling enrollment, the cuts are too few to make a serious difference, and budgets continue to escalate.
We know that closing a school or redistricting students has emotional as well as fiscal components, and it should never be a quick fix or a shoot-from-the-hip response. The Timberlane Regional School District’s response to a request to lower the budget was to propose shuttering Sandown Central School, something that had not been part of the discussion that year.
The Derry Cooperative School District, on the other hand, has chosen a far better route – appointing a facilities committee to study a report the district contracted out on its buildings, and other reports done on class size. The committee will be looking at a variety of options, including reorganization, redistricting, changing the use of a facility or closing a school.
Except for Derry’s study committee, we haven’t seen any significant move to plan long term for the ongoing enrollment drop – and when Londonderry did eliminate classroom aides in its proposed budget this year, residents returned that cost at deliberative session.
Those seeking to pursue business as usual cite proposed housing developments as likely to add population.
Is that fact or wishful thinking?
Meanwhile, school budgets continue to rise, making the cost of owning a home out of reach of many of those potential newcomers – and keeping that home out of reach of many nearing or at retirement.
Mixed-use development went under the microscope at the Feb. 18 Planning Board meeting, as board members and landowners continued to grapple with what the zoning could and couldn’t mean for Derry.
The board held a workshop on zoning options for Route 28 South following a presentation on mixed usage by David Preece of the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission. Though the workshop was meant to gain input from property owners on what they wanted to see in that zone, it often veered into a discussion of mixed usage. The Town Council has said it does not support the zoning and several Planning Board members also do not support it.
Planning Director George Sioras opened the workshop by saying the future of Route 28 South has been a topic of discussion since 2001. Recently the staff and board crafted a proposed new zone, General Commercial IV, which proposed several changes, including removing any new residential development and removing any new automobile-related businesses. The auto-related businesses are now back on the table, but many board members remain firm in stating they do not want new housing in that district.
Agriculture is also on the table because of the Palmer farm, a heritage farm dating back to the 1800s at the junction of 28 and Kilrea Road.
Board member Jim MacEachern questioned why farming was back in the mix. “Is that what you really want?” he asked. “You don’t change the usage because of a person. We’re a Planning Board. What do we want to see there?”
The extension of town water and sewer up Route 28, a process partially completed this year, should be what drives the decisions and what goes in there, MacEachern maintained.
Chairman David Granese said in his opinion, the market and the landowners should dictate what happens with the auto-related businesses. “Some of those parcels would be good for a gas station,” he said.
MacEachern countered, “When water and sewer comes in, I would agree. Until water and sewer comes, the land can’t handle something like a restaurant chain. Whatever we allow today, we should be prepared to potentially change.”
Alternate member Robert Jean argued for a case-by-case basis for permitted uses. “Each plot is some landowner’s investment, his or her retirement. It should depend on the lot as to what goes on it,” he said.
Member Randy Chase contended that would begin “spot zoning.” And, Chase said, “We should look at what’s good for the town as a whole and not just this zone.”
Derry has already removed new residential construction from the Central Business District, General Commercial II and III, Chase said, because “residential and commercial don’t mix.”
While advocates of mixed- use zoning have pointed to the proposed Woodmont Commons in Londonderry, Chase said that is only working because “it’s easier to put mixed use on a parcel that big.” Woodmont includes more than 600 acres.
And Derry really needs the commercial tax revenue from Route 28, he added, saying, “Derry is 14 percent commercial. Londonderry is 35 percent commercial.”
Jean responded that he didn’t want to see zoning that would “handcuff” the landowners, to which Chase responded, “All zoning is ‘handcuffing.’ It’s done for the benefit of the wider community.”
Chase continued, “We allowed residential in commercial and it ran unchecked for decades. This (28 South) is our last available area.”
Jean said major corporations wouldn’t look at 28 South because it isn’t near a major highway.
Michael Fairbanks, Town Council representative to the Planning Board, confirmed that it was a Council goal to get housing out of that zone, in order to bring in more commercial and increase the tax base.
Granese said he is not in favor of mixed usage in that area. “The lots are too small,” he said. “They’re not big enough to separate residential from commercial. Also, I’ve seen what happens when residential comes in first and then we try to allow commercial. There’s a lot of ‘not in my back yard.’”
And that leads to litigation costs for the town, he added.
Vice-Chair John O’Connor said he was also against mixed use on 28 South. “The downtown overlay area is the best place for that,” he said.
In the 2010 Master Plan update, the community was surveyed and 61 percent said there was not enough commercial, business and office space in town, while 64 percent said there was not enough industrial and manufacturing space.
“We have not done this in a cocoon,” O’Connor said.
Alternate member Lori Davison said while each of the parcels represents someone’s investment, treating parcels individually “runs the risk of people feeling they were not treated fairly.” She asked for a “global overall plan” to minimize that risk.
Granese opened the floor to the public, and Melissa Polk, whose parents Marge and Wilbur Palmer own the farmland at 28 and Kilrea, said, “I am angry. I was going to thank you for these workshops, but I can see your minds are made up. You are not listening to us.”
Polk said the landowners aren’t asking just for residential, but for mixed use, which would include some commercial in the front and residential toward the back of the lots.
“You should work with us so everyone gets what they want,” Polk told the board.
Chase told her that commercial could extend through the lots, like in an industrial park. “That’s the way it should be developed,” he said. “That’s what you’re not listening to.”
Polk said even in that model the commercial would eventually meet up with the Low Density Residential zone on the other side.
“That is what buffers are for,” Chase countered.
Chase added, “Every one acre ‘lost’ to residential is a huge loss to the community. We can’t afford to lose any more.”
Polk asked for another CTAP study (see related article page 9), but Sioras said it’s the state’s purview to commission another study. “The state may look at another build-out analysis,” he said.
Polk said, “I don’t understand why no one is willing to even research this.”
MacEachern said, “I could show you revenue, but I’d also need to show you the other side of the ledger. What is it going to cost me?” Mixed-use means housing and housing means children, he said, and educating a child is an expense for the town.
“You can’t go by revenue,” MacEachern said. “You have to go by input and output.”
Dr. Timothy Butterfield read a letter from Gerald and Beth Seragusa, owners of 45 and 49 South Main St., in which they asked for the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission to do a study of the pros and cons of mixed use in their area. They also said the Planning Board is a “separate entity” from the Council and should look at all options for Derry.
He also read a compilation of statements from other landowners, including a comment that “one brush can’t paint all things.”
Butterfield questioned the polarity involved, saying, “You can’t say, ‘That is residential. That is commercial.’” He advocated for a “performance based” system in which each lot would be evaluated case by case.
“The wrongs of the past should not be balanced on the backs of the current landowners,” Butterfield said.
Marjorie Palmer criticized Council Chairman Mark Osborne for polling the council on mixed usage, noting that was not on the agenda.
But Granese responded, “The Town Council has no relevance to the Planning Board meeting.”
Palmer asked what the rush was to define 28 South, and Granese said, “This has been going on for a long time.”
“We have been talking about town water and sewer out there since 1984,” Sioras said.
Property owner Sheldon Wolff said he would like to see more uses allowed in the area, rather than fewer. He wanted to see a poll of the board as to who put in the ideas such as limiting auto, but Granese said, “I am not going to poll the board.”
Granese added, “We discussed all this in the previous workshops. You’ve been in every meeting. Again, what would you want to see out there? Do you want a Tens?”
“What is Tens?” Wolff asked.
“It’s a strip club in Salisbury, (Mass.)” Granese said.
Wolff said, “No, I’m fine with the Golden Banana in Saugus.”
But they returned to the topic at hand with Granese asking, “So you want to see it like it is now?”
The strip is an eyesore now, Wolff said, with small used car dealerships along the roadway. But he said the market would dictate what went in, and with town water and sewer, “all that is going to change.”
Councilor Al Dimmock defended Osborne, saying, “All Mark was trying to point is the way we think it should go. Nobody says you have to do that.” He told the landowners, “I feel sorry for you people. But if you want to do something with your land, why haven’t you already done it?”
Granese did poll his board on what they wanted to see and the responses were varied. Marc Flattes said, “I don’t agree with multi-family in the district and I think you should remove agriculture.”
Jean said, “Keep it as it is for now and define mixed usage.”
Davison said, “I’m not opposed to mixed usage, but we need to define our policy and protocol.”
Darrell Park said he was against residential in the area and didn’t see the point of keeping agriculture. “If it’s not already farmland, nobody is going to come in and start farming it,” he said.
An updated draft of the proposed GCIV will be discussed in the March 4 meeting.