Rezoning will limit development around the historic Frost Farm.
By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – After a full year of consideration, the town's Planning Board believes it has settled on the right zoning change to protect a historic landmark from encroaching development, while allowing business to thrive along a southerly stretch of town.
A public hearing will likely be held the first week of August on the proposed zoning change, from industrial to commercial – a year almost to the day since the idea of how such a change might affect the Robert Frost Farm was first floated during a planning board session.
A year ago, Rockingham Road resident and business owner George Reynolds requested the zoning change because he wanted to expand his welding business, something not allowed under the existing designation of office/research and development.
Upgrading the zoning for Reynolds would also mean a change to about eight other parcels in that zone, including the Frost Farm, evoking concerns from several residents. Allowing commercial development would deter from the idyllic and historic nature of the Frost Farm, they said, a longtime landmark and major tourist attraction.
The Planning Board took a giant step back from the request and decided to hold a series of workshops to consider options, including the creation of a historic overlay district.
Last week, the workshop process concluded after the board came to a consensus that creating a General Commercial III zone would do the job – protecting the farm through specific restrictions for signage, architecture and new building height while allowing future development, with oversight.
Frost Farm trustee Charles Dent said the process was fair for all concerned.
“I didn't really anticipate that a historic overlay district would happen. I think they thought it would be a bit too cumbersome, too restrictive, for future development,” Dent said. “But it was a positive process that took quite a bit of time.”
Planning Board Chair David Granese said it was important that the public was included in the year-long workshop process.
“Normally the public is not allowed to weigh in during workshops, but we decided to think outside of the box for this one,” Granese said. “We recognized that this was something that mattered to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, so we tried to keep the process as open as possible, to satisfy everyone's concerns.”
Bill and Jean Smith, who own and operate Rockingham Acres Garden Center, across Route 28 from the farm, are in favor of the rezoning to commercial. They contend that it has been a long time since Route 28 was rural, pointing to the 11,000 cars traveling daily, proving it was time for the town to acknowledge the commercial potential for its southern-most quadrant, a gateway into town from the south.
What clinched the zoning change decision for Planning Board vice chairman John O'Connor was a recent site walk of the farm, which gave board members a first-hand look at existing land buffers and how well they protect the property.
“I was the only board member in favor of the historic overlay district, but after the workshop process, I realized that such a change would have been too restrictive and the property rights of abutters would have suffered,” O'Connor said. “You don't really grasp the distance around the farm, with the state-owned land buffering it to the south, until you see it and walk it. It's really protected.”
The site walk also reminded O'Connor that, some 25 years ago as a Scout Master, his troop cleared the walking paths each year that wind through the woods behind the farm.
“They aren't doing that currently, but that's a great project for local Boy or Girl Scout troops, and so I made the suggestion that they consider connecting with local Scouts and start doing that again,” O'Connor said.
Another thought O'Connor had about development around the farm was that a small bed and breakfast might be a good addition to the landscape. Although some of his fellow board members had reservations over what could happen should such a business change hands and deteriorate into a rooming house. It is a conversation that will likely continue during the fine tuning of the General Commercial III zone parameters following the August public hearing.
Momentum to protect the farm proves that there is value to the landmark, beyond the obvious connection it holds to history and its former illustrious resident, author Robert Frost, said Dent.
It is the spirit of what the old Frost homestead represents to visitors who travel to Derry from around the world, just to stand where Frost once stood. It is why the trustees have attended every workshop, sitting quietly in the back, to make sure that the push to bring new businesses to town is handled with care.
“(Planning Director) George Sioris really helped the process, in my opinion. He really knows his stuff, and in general, the trustees appreciate the efforts of the planning board to try to get this right,” said Dent. “We're cautiously optimistic for the future of Frost Farm.”