The Derry Planning Board will move ahead with a new zone for Route 28 South, despite concerns from some landowners regarding the allowed uses for their property.
At its April 1 meeting the board voted 6-2 to hold a public hearing on the proposed General Commercial IV (GC IV) district, the next step in creating the district out of the Route 28 South properties.
It was the sixth workshop on the new zoning, Planning Director George Sioras said as he introduced the topic.
The issue began after the Town Council voted to authorize the expansion of town water and sewer along 28 South, a process that was begun this past year. With the investment in infrastructure, the Council expressed a desire to promote business development in the area, in order to reap a return on the investment and increase the town’s tax base.
To this end the Council voted and the Planning Board supported removing all future residential development from the zone. In an effort to attract larger companies, automobile-related businesses such as gas stations and used car lots were removed from the zone, but later added back.
New issues at the April 1 meeting included stopping GC IV at Berry Road, where the water and sewer also stop, and leaving the rest of the area alone until the water and sewer goes all the way to the Windham town line.
Member Michael Fairbanks said, “I would keep it going all the way down 28 South and handle it all at once.”
“I don’t want to eliminate any business that can get along without water and sewer,” member Jim MacEachern said. “Without water and sewer we’re not going to get half these uses up there anyway.”
Alternate member Marc Flattes observed, “If we’re in the zone now, we need to do it 100 percent. We can’t go backwards.”
The informal consensus of the board was to extend the new zoning all the way down 28 if it is approved.
The board also discussed whether to have an arbitrary commercial district extending for a specified distance, such as 600 feet from the center of the road, or to have each property’s portion of the commercial district extend to its back lot line.
Setting an arbitrary distance would result in “split zoning,” with part of a property being zoned General Commercial and part of it residential, and Fairbanks asked what the ramifications of that would be.
Sioras said the 600-foot rule was in place when he started working in Derry, and the arbitrary number made some properties a mixture of commercial and residential zoning. “We did not want that,” he said, noting that the current extension to the back property line works better.
MacEachern observed that with “lot line” zoning, there is still a buffer zone in place to protect abutting residential properties.
With current development on Route 111 including the Brookstone complex and Cowbell Corners, Sioras said, going to the back lot line has increased the commercial zone.
“It needs to stay at the lot line,” Flattes said. “Split zoning gets complicated.”
Flattes expressed concern about some of the allowed uses in the proposed GC IV, including agriculture and assisted living. “I would like to take out agriculture and assisted living,” he said. “That would make the area more marketable.”
Flattes said these uses were “tax-negative” for the town.
Sioras said it depended on whether the facility was run as a nonprofit or for-profit. For example, he said, the Birch Heights facility is for-profit and generates taxes.
Councilor Al Dimmock, who was visiting the meeting, confirmed that if the assisted living facility were a nonprofit, it would pay no taxes. “But if it’s for-profit, we need to look at that,” he said.
Chairman David Granese opened the workshop to public comment, with a warning to avoid repetition.
Resident Mary Eisner said she was opposed to the GC IV plan because it did not include a provision for residential use.
“Your minds are made up,” she told the board.
Eisner linked the conversation to the cuts in town services that have been discussed as part of the 2016 budget. She’s against the cuts, noting that they would only bring an average of $500 in savings to the homeowner and asked, “Would businesses be attracted to Derry with the cuts in services?”
“This change has no protection for the land they own or the land their families have owned,” she said of the GC IV. “We need to come together to allow a compromise.”
Eisner concluded, “If residential use is not included, our sense of community will be negatively affected, along with our faith and trust in town officials to do the right thing.”
Rolling the Dice for Development
Realtor Sheldon Wolff, who owns property on Route 28, said, “You asked me in a previous meeting what I would want to see on 28. I would like to see a casino. It’s happening in New Hampshire, it might as well happen in Derry.”
Fairbanks asked where casinos and gambling fall in zoning.
MacEachern said there were already lower-stakes gambling spots in New Hampshire, such as the Seabrook and Laconia facilities.
Planning Assistant Elizabeth Robidoux said the closest she could come on gambling was “indoor commercial recreation.”
“That’s not really such a stretch,” MacEachern said.
“It’s a discussion for another day,” Fairbanks said. But with gambling on the horizon in New Hampshire it could be a discussion they would have, he added.
Wolff agreed with MacEachern that the buffer provisions would help to protect residential neighborhoods abutting commercial.
“You should continue to build to the lot lines,” Wolff told the board. “If you limit it to 200 feet, or 600 feet, if someone has a larger parcel you are limiting their uses.”
In answer to Flattes’ remark about assisted living, Wolff pointed out that “you wouldn’t get kids in the schools.”
Atty. Morgan Hollis of Nashua represents six property owners on Route 28: the Browns, Palmers, Smiths, Butterfields, Taylors and Seragusas.
Hollis said, “My clients have asked you to continue down the course you’ve started, with an eye toward reinstating residential use.”
Hollis said he and his clients have heard what the board has to say, but not necessarily from the rest of the community.
He referenced the argument that having residential next to commercial would limit commercial expansion. “You will always have that conflict,” he said. “People will always be coming to you folks for you to weigh in. There’s too much traffic, you mitigate. Too much noise, you mitigate.”
Eliminating residential from this zone will not “quell” the opposition from people who don’t like commercial use next to residential, whether it’s in or out of this zone, he said.
The two uses have coexisted for years on Route 28 South, Hollis added.
He criticized the board for thinking that they could improve the tax base by cutting out residential, noting, “There is no evidence of that.”
Hollis pushed for a concept known as “mixed-use development,” observing that while the board has established a Mixed Use Study Subcommittee, “nobody wants to listen.
“You have a terrific mixed-use area downtown,” Hollis said, referring to the Traditional Business District. “You need to evaluate what uses are compatible and how they work.”
Hollis also observed that according to a chart on the back page of the draft ordinance, 18 percent of the proposed GC IV is currently residential. “You still have to deal with that,” he told the board.
“We are asking you to stay the course and we are asking you to reconsider housing,” Hollis concluded.
Mixed on Mixed Usage
In the board’s discussion, member Darrel Park said, “in all fairness, I think we should take a look at the report from the Mixed Use Subcommittee.” But, he added, whatever the town decides, “It has to be tax-positive.”
MacEachern said the board could take a look at the report and run some numbers.
“But the Council objective was clearly stated,” he added.
With single-family homes, the numbers could be run fairly quickly, MacEachern said. “X number of bedrooms equals X number of kids in the formulas,” he said. But apartment buildings are the real problem, he added.
“The way I think we should do it is a mixed-use overlay district as opposed to the entire district,” MacEachern said. “Pick out a half-dozen parcels that are eligible.”
Sioras outlined the board’s options. “On the table before you is the proposed GC IV with its permitted uses,” he said. “You can move forward tonight and schedule a public hearing. Separately, the chairman asked us to put together the subcommittee.”
It is a separate issue, Granese agreed. “We put the subcommittee in place because we did not want mixed use in GC IV. If we decide we want mixed use, we need to table this.”
The question, Sioras said, is, “Do you like what we’re doing today?”
MacEachern recommended tabling the issue until the board heard back from the subcommittee.
The study is still worth doing, Granese said, because a Mixed Use Overlay District could go anywhere in town.
“But it only makes sense in the General Commercial,” MacEachern countered.
In the final vote, Lori Davison, Council representative Mark Osborne, Fairbanks, Flattes, Frank Bartkewicz and Granese voted to move ahead with the GC IV and schedule a public hearing. Park and MacEachern voted in the negative.