Height Limits for Multi-Family Dwellings Pondered

The Derry Planning Board will explore ways to limit the height of multi-family dwellings in town, after complaints about new apartment projects and one citizen’s initiative.

The board held a workshop session at its Sept. 17 meeting to discuss multi-family housing in the Mixed High Density Residential or MHDR district. Mary Eisner, the resident who asked the board to look at the issue, was also present.

In recent months the board has fielded questions and concerns from people in residential areas of town who are worried about the impact several proposed apartment and/or condominium complexes would have on their quality of life. Most recently, residents of Magnolia Lane, a street of single-family dwellings, took to the microphones to ask for restrictions against a proposed apartment building at 19 Kendall Pond Road. Residents cited lack of privacy, traffic concerns and safety issues for schoolchildren on the block.

The board had a workshop meeting two weeks ago with the Town Council, where they addressed the issue, and they continued the discussion in their own workshop last week.

Planning Director George Sioras said while the town couldn’t prohibit multi-family housing, it could control its impact through density requirements, architectural design regulations and restrictions on building height.

“Derry far exceeds its share of multifamily housing according to the RSAs,” Sioras said. “How much more do we need?” In West Derry, the area beyond the traffic circle, the streets are narrower and the character of the neighborhood comes into play, he said. The downtown areas were laid out during the “shoe factory” years, when many people walked to work, he said.

The only district where multi-family housing is allowed is in the MHDR, Sioras said. And any lot beyond the Rotary is one-acre zoning, he said.

“We can’t limit it,” member Randy Chase said of multi-family housing. “But we can keep oversized buildings from being built on undersized lots.”

“If we get too far ‘out there’ on our regulations, we could get challenged,” Michael Fairbanks, Town Council representative to the board, observed.

The town’s regulations for multifamily housing allow for 12 units per acre. One acre is 43,560 square feet, according to Sioras, and when divided by 12 it allows a minimum of 3,360 per square feet per dwelling unit.

Alternate member Marc Flattes suggested lowering the maximum height to two stories and increasing the minimum space per living unit to 5,000 square feet, in order to reduce density.

When asked to contribute to the discussion, Eisner observed that reducing the allowable number of stories would conform with the “anti-snob law,” but also reduce the area’s attractiveness to the developers of multi-family housing.

Chase’s version would be not allowing a multi-family structure to be more than 10 percent higher than any building within a 1,000-foot circumference.

“That,” Fairbanks said, “would make it more in character with whatever neighborhood it’s in.”

Parking is a “huge” issue, Chairman David Granese observed. In planning a complex, developers need not only think of residents but of possible visitors. “You can’t have an 18-unit building with only 10 parking spaces,” he said.

“That’s the worst-case scenario,” Sioras agreed, noting that parking is stretched over weekends and holidays.

Chase also brought up the “green space” developers are required to provide for their residents. While the regulations specify 15 percent of a property must be green or recreational, he said, “Some developers try to sneak by with planting grass on a traffic island and putting a tree on it. That is not green space.”

“The word ‘impact’ is the key,” Sioras said.

The board will hold another workshop on the topic in November.