Councilors Question Timing of Route 28 South Project

A discussion on easements needed to expand town water and sewer down Route 28 South turned into whether the expansion was appropriate at this time.

Michael Fowler, Director of Public Works, and Thomas Carrier, Deputy Director, discussed the easements at the May 6 Town Council meeting. Seven of the easements have been executed without any cost to the town and two require financial compensation to the property owners. But Chairman Mark Osborne, citing his lack of familiarity with the project and questions raised by constituents, asked if the project should be postponed “until we have the proper zoning in place.

“In the interests of economic development, we have put down substantial infrastructure on Route 28,” he said, referring to the bridge and prep work done last fall. “I don’t want this project to be curtailed by bad zoning.

In particular, Osborne and other Councilors expressed a need to see business and industrial development on that stretch, rather than residential. “I realized we approved this last year,” Councilor Thomas Cardon said. “One of the parcels for sale is 20 acres. I would hate to see 20 houses. This is where our economic development is going to be. To increase the tax base, it should be for commercial and business.”

Councilor Michael Fairbanks reminded his colleagues that in a joint workshop with the Planning Board Dec. 3, several action items were identified: a “vision” for development from the Council, a close look at the Master Plan, an examination of General Commercial zoning, and a look at the possibility of mixed-use zoning.

Planning Director George Sioras reminded the Council that new housing will not be permitted in that area. “We took out the housing clause,” he said of the Planning Board. “As of July 2013, any single-family home that’s already there can remain.”

Sioras said the Planning Board had a workshop on mixed-use zoning scheduled for the next night. “Some members are for it, some against it,” he said. “It takes months to do this correctly.”

“If mixed use is approved, would it undo the prohibition against housing?” Osborne asked.

Sioras said it depended on the type of housing. Some mixed-use developments have businesses in the front and residential in the back, he said, or over-55 housing as a buffer between the commercial development and single-family homes.

“Or you could have no housing at all,” Sioras said. “That’s where we need to spend time talking.”

Chief Financial Officer Frank Childs urged the Council to allow the expansion of water and sewer to go forward. The bond has been sold and the contract has gone out to bid and been awarded to American Excavating, which had the lowest bid, he said.

And, he said, American Excavating is ready to go. “We expect to have a shovel in the ground two weeks from today,” he noted.

Childs reminded the Council that the project had been approved two years ago. “The reason we waited,” he said, “was to allow the Planning Board to do the work it did regarding housing.”

Osborne said, “In a sense, Route 28 south is our ‘Go West, Young Man.’ It’s our last area of vast spaces to invite industry to. But there is some mystery still as to what we’re inviting into town.”

He has mixed views about mixed usage, he added, saying, “In one sense we’re telling people, ‘This is going to be your home.’ But we’re also saying, ‘Hey, businesses, we want your cash revenue.’ It doesn’t always work out.”

And “over 55” doesn’t always keep children out of schools, according to Dimmock. “I’ve known plenty of women who had children over 55.”

“Can the bond be stopped?” Councilor Joshua Bourdon asked. “What are the repercussions?”

Dimmock said, “The contract has been awarded. They will not hold that price for us. As long as we wait, the cost of materials and labor will go up.”

Fairbanks, current representative to the Planning Board, encouraged the Council to study the Master Plan. “For economic development, getting water and sewer up 28 is paramount,” he said, adding, “But we need to control it as much as we can.”

Sioras pointed out that expanding water and sewer down 28 is in the Master Plan.

Cardon said he was opposed to mixed use and housing in that area, and that the Council and Planning Board needed to proceed with caution. “Everyone’s nightmare is the Auto Mile,” he said, referring to the notorious stretch in Massachusetts.

Dimmock said, “I believe we should let the Planning Board look into what’s best for the town of Derry.”

Phyllis Katsakiores agreed. “They are the experts,” she said of the board and Planning Department.

Sioras said his department and the Planning Board had success with Tsienneto Road. When he came to Derry, it was almost a wilderness until one reached Betley Chevrolet and the Assembly of God church. The town extended water and sewer to Tsienneto Road and the Planning Board made it an Office/Medical zone. “We didn’t want it to turn into another Crystal Avenue,” he said. “What you have there now is a quality street.”

“We need to seize the moment but not act too quickly,” Bourdon said.