Council, Planning Board Ready to Control Multifamily Housing

The Derry Town Council and Planning Board will work to control the number of multifamily housing projects in the town, after noting that Derry has more than fulfilled its obligation to provide this type of housing.

The two boards held a joint workshop after the Sept. 2 Town Council meeting in which they explored tweaking or changing zoning in order to limit these projects.

Council Chair Mark Osborne summed up the purpose of the workshop as, “Do we have a problem? And if we do, what are we going to do about it?”

In recent months, residents of several neighborhoods have spoken publicly against developers’ plans to build multi-family housing near their streets.

Planning Director George Sioras gave a quick overview of how Derry got to where it is. When he started in his job, all the lots were 1-acre zoning, he told the two boards. “That was in 1980, and we had 18,000 people,” Sioras said.
By 1990 there were 29,000 residents, and the then-Planning Board determined it needed better control, he said.

“We looked at soils, the character of the land,” Sioras said. The town’s zoning was changed, with 3-acre zoning required in the Low Density Residential area, two acres in the Low Medium Density Residential, and one acre in Medium Density Residential and Medium/High Density Residential.

“But in the last six months, we’ve had four or five applications for multifamily housing in Derry, ranging from 10 units to 18 to 20,” he said. The Planning Board “decided it was time to take a look at it,” Sioras said.

What are the options? “Can we reduce the density allowances? Can we eliminate certain types of housing?” Sioras asked. The infrastructure, including town sewer and water, is ready for multifamily housing. The neighbors? Not so much.

“Density,” he said, “changes the character of a neighborhood.”

Sioras again invoked the past with court challenges in the late 20th century. Chester and Atkinson took their cases as far as the state Supreme Court, which ruled in each case that the town was obligated to provide multifamily housing. With the apartments at the Fairways and Linlew Drive, among others, Derry was in no danger of a challenge, Sioras said.

In the mid-1990s, Derry created its own Growth Management Ordinance, Sioras said, noting, “At that time, we were bombarded with residential growth.” Southern New Hampshire was the fastest-growing area of the country, and Derry had its share of new residents. The schools were crowded.

“We created an Interim Growth Ordinance and ‘froze’ the issuing of building permits. We updated the zoning and the Master Plan,” Sioras said. They issued a “phase-in” process for developers, in which a developer who wanted to build 50 homes would be allowed to build a portion of those and phase in the rest of the development.

The ordinance was lifted after the Ernest P. Barka Elementary School and the addition to Grinnell Elementary School were built, Sioras said.

And that brought them to the Derry of today.

Young people, including the current Millennial generation, don’t want to buy homes or are not able to at this time, according to Sioras, and this has created a demand for apartments. “There is pressure on the multifamily market, ‘Hurry up and get your permit in,’” he told the boards.

“The only reason they’re doing it,” Councilor Michael Fairbanks said, “is because the market is there.”

Planning Vice-Chair John O’Connor observed, “If we do change our zoning, whoever has a current plan on file still goes by the current rules. If they have a 10-unit building planned, they can still build 10 units. If they applied for 18, they can still do 18.”

Planning Board member Darrell Park said, “A three-story apartment building changes the look of a neighborhood.”

“It is as toxic as building a cement plant,” Planning Board alternate Marc Flattes agreed.

Councilor Albert Dimmock observed that as far as tax revenue goes, “If it’s an 18-unit apartment, there is no way we’ll get the taxes out of it to pay for what we’re giving in services.”

O’Connor said that as far as the Workforce Housing law goes, Derry has exceeded the requirements.

Eliminating multi-family entirely would not be a good move, board members agreed, but they can tweak the ordinance to change the number of units allowed. “It can be toned down,” O’Connor said.

There are three projects currently before the Planning Board, Sioras said, noting, “The owners have invested a considerable amount of money in engineering and fees. It’s hard to say, ‘You can’t do that.’”

But they can modify it, members of both boards agreed. For example, a 55-and-older development places less demand on services, and many seniors are interested in staying in Derry and “aging in place,” Planning Assistant Elizabeth Robidoux said. “They’re not necessarily ready for assisted living, and they are looking for apartments. They do not want to leave Derry.”

“We are all in agreement around this table,” Councilor David Fischer observed. “What are the next steps we can take?”

Sioras said, “The Planning Board knows how serious this situation is. In our next meeting, Sept. 17, we’ll look at zoning again.” He sketched out the sequence, which includes a Planning Board discussion, a public hearing on the proposed change, and Council approval.