By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Jonathan Sobel wants to develop his 4-acre lot, a woodsy stretch of land on dead-end Wilson Avenue that he's owned for 25 years. It crests on a hill just behind Birch Street, bordered on one side by Oak Street and, on the other, by the town's chief of police.
Sobel's plan for development fits well within the current zoning of the area, medium-high density residential. However, if his neighbors succeed in a push to change the zoning to prohibit multi-family homes, Sobel's plan is dead in the water.
Sobel is crying foul, and is willing to fight the town all the way to court, if need be.
“What these neighbors are saying is they live in an idyllic neighborhood, close to the best the downtown has to offer, protected by a large tract of open space – and they don't want anyone else to be able to live there. The Master Plan calls for maximum density housing, which puts people within walking distance of city services and businesses,” said Sobel. “It's personal – and it doesn't help that the chief of police is a direct abutter to my property.”
Sobel, an orthopedic surgeon who lives in Portsmouth and runs several medical offices including one on Windham Road in Derry, has plans for two 10-unit buildings. Four years ago Sobel hired an engineer and began in earnest to develop a blueprint. Sidetracked for a time by a down economy, Sobel has spent the past two years making adjustments to his plan, trying to keep up with changing state and local requirements for wetlands and easements.
In September, Sobel and his engineer, Charlie Pearson, thought they'd satisfied town requirements and cleared the final hurdle on their way to a technical plan review and groundbreaking. Around the same time, his neighbors were circulating a petition and collected 72 signatures, which they delivered to the Planning Board, requesting a change to the current zoning. The change would affect 68 particular properties east of Birch Street, restricting construction of multi-family dwellings on existing lots, including Sobel's.
Last month, the rezoning request was unanimously approved by the Planning Board, prompted by a petition circulated by two of Sobel's Wilson Avenue neighbors – Christopher Lunetta and Blanche Garone, wife of the town's long-time chief of police, Ed Garone.
Several residents, including the Garones, attended the March 3 meeting to voice their strong support for rezoning, citing preservation of the historic character of the neighborhood and fear of increased traffic should someone come in, buy up several lots and build apartments.
Tonight, the the proposed rezoning comes before the council as a consent item. They will schedule a public hearing on the matter. In the meantime, Sobel is preparing to fight for what he says is his right to develop his property as it has existed for years – in a high density residential zone.
Town Planner George Sioras would only speak generally about the rezoning request, saying that because the matter might end up in court, he wouldn't get into specifics.
“It's in one of the two oldest neighborhoods in town, and is primarily single homes, but there are some multi-family in there, which would be grandfathered,” Sioras said.
He cited a similar rezoning effort in a nearby neighborhood known as Nortonville, across from Parkland Hospital.
In that case, property owner and Derry business man, Mark Cooper, was working toward building a multi-family unit. Similarly, residents petitioned the town to rezone from high density residential to high density residential II, which restricts multi-family buildings. Cooper's plan failed. His property sits dormant.
Contacted yesterday, Cooper said it's appropriate to ask why an entire neighborhood should be rezoned when the very buildings they seek to prohibit already exist there legally.
“Rezoning isn't a tool the government gives people so they can spot zone properties in their neighborhoods. That's what they did to me – they knew I was developing and were well organized against me. They went in and took my bundle of rights as a property owner away from me by rezoning a property that had been there for years,” Cooper said. “I took about $350,000 on the chin in that deal. It's terrible, what they did to me, and it's not right if they are trying to do it to someone else.”
When asked about Sobel's plan, Chief Garone said Sobel is entitled to his opinion about why he thinks the neighborhood is against him, but disputes that the rezoning is meant to target him specifically.
“There are 72 signatures on the petition, and I didn't collect one of them,” Garone said. “A lot of people just want to preserve the integrity of our neighborhood. It's a nice neighborhood. The thing is, if he builds apartments on that land, Dr. Sobel doesn't have to live there; we do.”