Councilors weigh heavy issues, accept 2012 budget.
By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – After several years of commitment on paper toward economic development and building a more livable downtown, the council last night faced some weighty matters that will ultimately test that commitment in reality.
The first matter, which developed into a lengthy public hearing, has to do with rezoning a section of the downtown to prohibit additional multi-family housing.
A petition was filed by 68 residents of the neighborhood bordered by Birch Street and Broadway, who are requesting the zoning change. However, one property owner, Jonathan Sobel, is fighting the change, saying that the petition is directed at him, and his interest in developing his 4-acre site with two 10-unit garden style apartments.
He asserts that his plans have been delayed over three years by the town and, if the zoning change is approved, it would be essentially “reverse spot zoning,” which is illegal. He has threatened to take the matter to court.
Complicating the issue is that Chief of Police Ed Garone is a direct abutter.
Sobel contends that he is not only fighting an unfair zoning change but the threat of crossing the town's longtime police chief.
Councilor Janet Fairbanks suggested that the council consider asking a neighboring town council to hear and decide the matter, to alleviate any appearance of bias in favor of Garone. Her suggestion did not gain traction, and the hearing went forward as planned.
Town Planning Director George Sioras submitted a packet of information to the town including a recommendation from the Planning Board to go ahead with the rezoning.
However, Sobel provided the council with his own hefty packet, and gave a detailed explanation of his position, backed by engineer Charles Pearson, who has been working on the site plan.
Councilor Kevin Coyle said he would like to review the Superior Court decision referenced by Sobel concerning an access road, and said the council ought to have some legal counsel on the question of the legality of changing the zoning.
Several residents came forward to restate their interest in preserving their neighborhood as it is, and that adding an apartment complex would be detrimental to their quality of life.
Although the council tabled the matter until June 1, Councilor Neil Wetherbee commented that rezoning seems to run counter to the master plan, saying this was one of the harder decisions he's had to weigh since becoming a councilor.
“The thing I keep coming back to is the master plan. Derry has been working on these goals, development and density are directed downtown,” Wetherbee said, reading directly from the master plan that the town should “continue to support a variety of housing by allowing multifamily, and other forms of high density housing in those areas currently allowed” in.
Another pressing matter before council was the question of property acquisition in order to move forward with the widening of Route 28. Of the 15 properties affected, six offers have been accepted, five look like they will be signed pending legal details to be worked out, and four are unsecured, most significantly, the Pinkerton Tavern, a popular restaurant that is threatened by the project.
Arnold Goldstein, who owns the lot, is in favor of selling both the lot and the building to the town. However, the business is run by Guy Streitburger and Jen Lutzen, who are at the mercy of whatever Goldstein and the town decide.
Last night town administrator Gary Stenhouse told the council there are currently four options on the table, ranging from moving the building back to razing it.
Councilor Coyle asked if the town could have the property reassessed, saying that the current offer to Goldstein is based on a 2008 assessment, and that the market has changed dramatically.
“I believe we're overpaying by a significant sum,” Coyle said.
The council tabled that decision, hoping to secure the remaining signatures and avoid eminent domain proceedings.
In other business, the council voted to adopt the revised 2012 budget in the amount of $39,809,337 by a vote of 5 to 2. Coyle said he voted down the budget because he felt the council overestimated revenues for the coming year and was against putting nine town-owned properties back on the market.
Fairbanks said she was not in favor of cutting the road maintenance budget, and was concerned that the council would not be able to restore the budget in future years.
Finally, a brief discussion over whether to purchase a lot next to the library failed to pass when put to a vote, 5 to 2. Councilor David Milz and Brian Chirichiello voted in favor of the purchase. Overwhelmingly, the council agreed that it was not the time to spend money on a lot that would net about 20 spaces, given the overall cost of razing the existing home and paving. Council Chair Brad Benson told the council he felt parking would be addressed in upcoming workshops, and alternative solutions would be found.