Randy Chase, a Planning Board member and longtime Derry resident, has had some interesting conversations with other residents regarding commercial development.
“They say to me, ‘I’ve got deer in my back yard, where will they go?’” Chase told Town Council and Planning Board members. “And I say, ‘Probably the same place they went when the developers cut down the trees to make your street.’”
The Council and Planning Board are in general consensus about the need to limit further housing construction in Derry, particularly in the proposed General Commercial IV district, but they have different ideas of what that will look like. The Council met with the Planning Board on Tuesday, May 27, to discuss zoning in the area of Route 28 South in light of the expansion of town water and sewer further up the road.
The issue emerged several weeks ago when the Council expressed concern about the expansion of utilities, noting that it wanted to see a good return on investment in the terms of tax revenue.
Most Planning Board member assured them that wouldn’t happen with the proverbial picket-fence home and 2.5 children.
Council Chairman Mark Osborne hosted the meeting and welcomed the Planning Board. He asked members of the Council to express their thoughts on what they want to see on 28 South.
Council member Al Dimmock reminded both boards that after the Fairways Apartments were built, it was necessary to build a new middle school. While the father, grandfather and great- grandfather emphasized that he “loved children,” he said more children in more single-family homes translated to a higher tax rate for everyone.
Councilor Joshua Bourdon said, “I feel Route 28 South is extremely important to the future of Derry’s economic development.” He said he shared Dimmock’s concern about residential development.
Bourdon asked if the town had the ability to prohibit housing in an area, and Planning Director George Sioras said it was already done, with the Planning Board voting last year to restrict single-family housing in that district. Only pre-existing homes will be allowed, Sioras said.
“Can we get specific about what we do allow?” Bourdon asked.
They can do that too, Sioras told him.
“We need to make sure we’re steering zoning in a way that will attract development,” Councilor Michael Fairbanks said. “Otherwise, all the talk in the world won’t make this happen.”
Councilor David Fischer reminded the group that it isn’t just development, but the aesthetics of development. “We don’t want another Crystal Avenue,” he said, referring to the commercial stretch of small businesses between Route 102 and Manchester Road.
“It’s not, ‘economic development at any cost,’” Fischer said.
Councilor Thomas Cardon said he was opposed to housing on Route 28 South, noting, “It’s one of the last areas in town where we can do something positive in economic development.”
Osborne agreed. “I see 28 as our last chance to take an undeveloped area and maximize its potential,” he said.
Osborne added that he wants to see industry and corporations that foster more jobs and a “solid, independent economy. And we can’t rely on grants from Uncle Sam or casinos.”
Regarding 28 South, Osborne said, “Why would we even think of allowing housing there? Derry has no shortage of housing.”
“Every child who goes to our schools costs us money,” Dimmock added.
Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores said she was excited to see the expansion of water and sewer. But, she added, “I don’t want to see housing. And I don’t want to see car dealerships.”
The used-car lots in the Ryan’s Hill area have their basis in another town’s expansion of water and sewer, Sioras said. When North Salem expanded town water and sewer to its portion of Route 28, the land increased in value and the smaller car dealers migrated north, to Windham and Derry. He remembers the then-Planning Director for Windham calling him and asking, “George, are you getting a lot of calls about used car lots?”
But what goes around comes around, and Planning Board member Darrell Park predicted the used car lots, psychics and tattoo parlors would migrate away from Route 28 once land prices went up. “The mom and pop auto dealers will go away and the more profitable businesses will come in,” he said.
Acting Town Administrator Larry Budreau asked if auto dealerships, repair shops and service stations could be removed from the zoning. Park said they could, but added that the move would also prohibit a Lexus dealer or similar car dealership from coming into the area. “We could be specific and say no used car dealerships are allowed,” he told Budreau.
When Bourdon said he’d like to see medical offices in the area, Planning Vice-Chair John O’Connor observed, “A lot of the medical facilities are nonprofits, under 501c-3. But they also employ a lot of people.”
Fairbanks reminded the group of the town’s Master Plan, which lists its vision for future land use and says at one point that more housing isn’t needed. The document, he said, was not meant to gather dust on a shelf.
“I agree with Mike,” O’Connor said. “We should stay on track with the Master Plan.”
The Master Plan recommends extending town water and sewer to the Windham line, Sioras said, and the current project is one of the phases.
The elephant in the conference room was the concept of Mixed-Use Development, a style of development where retail, office and residential facilities coexist. While housing has been taken out under the current zoning, Sioras said they had been asked by some of the landowners in the area to consider mixed-use development.
Chase reiterated his views that residential and commercial don’t mix. Homeowners don’t want commercial development in their backyards – or front yards. “If a developer promises residential and commercial and builds the residential first, I can guarantee that you’ll never see the commercial,” Chase said. The homeowners are likely to sue, he added.
In Chase’s opinion the only way residential/commercial can work is the way it does in downtown Derry or similar areas, with retail on the first floor, offices on the second and apartments on the third.
Chase cited historical precedent, including when the Linlew Drive apartments and Sunview Condos were built on some of the town’s most valuable commercial land. “The commercial developers got chased out of town, and we are forced to deal with what’s left,” he said.
He also noted that major corporations are looking for highway access, and Derry doesn’t have it. Both Exit 4 and Exit 5 are in Londonderry, he said.
“If you allow residential a toehold, it’s over,” Chase said.
Budreau summed it up for the group when he said they needed a solution that was “palatable to all” and increased the value of the land as much as possible.
The meeting was a workshop and no action was taken.