By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Construction to widen a stretch of Route 28 originally scheduled for this summer has been pushed back for lack of a land deal with the owner of Pinkerton Tavern.
To date, more than half of the 15 property owners affected by the widening have failed to sign offers made by the town, most significantly Pinkerton owner Arnold Goldstein, said Town Administrator Gary Stenhouse.
Complicating the deal is the fate of the tavern business run by Guy Streitberger and Jen Lutzen.
Negotiations include the town's role in helping the business continue even after a land deal is struck, whether it means buying the old building and moving it some place else, or securing a new building in a different location.
The other hold-up is a wetlands permit, which took more time than anticipated to apply for, said Stenhouse.
“The Pinkerton Tavern poses a complicated issue. When we realized that we didn't have all the land acquisitions in place, and that the wetlands permit was going to take more time to prepare for, we notified the tavern business owners that we would not be looking to begin construction until after January 1,” Stenhouse said.
Until all 15 properties are acquired, the project can't go out to bid.
Councilor Kevin Coyle expressed frustration over the delayed project at last week's council meeting.
“This is a project I didn't support four years ago when it first came up, but it was approved, 5 to 2. Then it just languished for years. Finally, two years ago, it was revived, but they haven't managed to move so much as a phone pole. They're not on the ball. It's frustrating to me that this is our No. 1 priority, to get this done, but so far, no one has made getting it done a priority,” Coyle said.
He said at this stage, the town should have been ready to take the property by eminent domain.
“For some reason they started that process and then it just stopped. We had the right to take that property, and they didn't. The people driving the bus haven't figured out the right way to do this. It will be five years by the time they may get a shovel in the ground,” Coyle said.
Stenhouse said the process of taking property by eminent domain is prescribed by state law, and there are steps that must be followed. He said that the wheels were put in motion to start that process in the fall, and are still turning. First, the question of moving ahead with land taking must go before the council one more time.
“Since it's looking more and more unlikely that we will be doing work in this calendar year, we can wait. Taking the land by eminent domain is a course of last resort,” Stenhouse said.
Councilor Neil Wetherbee said there should have been better communication over the progress of the land acquisitions. While Coyle's frustration is not unwarranted, Wetherbee believes with more oversight, moving forward in a timely manner is doable.
“We are absolutely at the point where we need to know who is prepared to sign on the dotted line, and anyone who is not, we need to resolve that on a specific time line,” Wetherbee said.
“We should have been talking about this more at every meeting, for updates, and as a council, we failed to do that. Moving forward, whether it's the new Town Administrator, or someone else, someone needs to be tasked with making sure that if we say we want a shovel in the ground by a certain date, that shovel is going in the ground – or else we have a damn good explanation as to why it isn't,” Wetherbee said.
In the meantime, Stenhouse said a new appraisal of the Pinkerton Tavern will be done to assess the current value of the property.
“Because such a large time has passed between the project's inception, which predates my tenure here, my assessor says property values have changed, so I have directed that another appraisal be done,” Stenhouse said.
A new appraisal should be ready by the end of this week or sometime next week. Goldstein can also choose to have an independent appraisal done, for which the town by law must contribute toward.
“That's his right if he so chooses,” said Stenhouse, who did not think a new appraisal would jeopardize a sale even if appraisal came in significantly lower than what the town has already offered Goldstein.
However, Coyle believes a lower offer could weigh down the process further.
“When he finds out his $900,000 property is now only worth half that, I think it will be a problem,” Coyle said.
Stenhouse said despite construction setbacks, Wal-Mart will be presenting its site plan to the Planning Board later this week, and there are entities expressing interest in some of the other TIF district parcels
Attempts by the Union Leader to reach Goldstein, Streitburger and Lutzen for comment for this story were unsuccessful.