By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – It could be one for the record books – the town's longest workshop series on zoning – which may finally come to a conclusion next month, after more than a year of deliberation over what to do with the Robert Frost Farm.
A public hearing originally set for August was postponed after discussion at the August 4 Planning Board meeting which included input from the town's attorney. That led to putting one more rezoning workshop on the calendar, for September 1.
Town Councilor Brian Chirichiello, who is liaison to the Planning Board, said concerns were raised that the board might be creating “spot zoning” by the new General Commercial III designation because it is so closely tied to the Robert Frost Farm.
“It's best to make sure we've got it right and avoid a court challenge over spot zoning somewhere down the road,” Chirichiello said. “But it seems we're moving forward. Some of the land owners near the farm wanted to know why we were holding building requirements to a smaller scale, only allowing a 5,000-square-foot footprint for new commercial businesses, for instance. The thing I tried to get across was that zoning can change. It's flexible. We don't need to allow for huge retail space in that area at least until we have water and sewer.”
The question of rezoning was raised during a regular Planning Board meeting in August of 2009 when 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 current zoning along that stretch of Route 28, which is currently zoned for 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, a proposal that evoked concern from several residents about how creating a commercial zone there would deter from the idyllic and historic nature of the farm.
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, which was eventually scrapped for General Commercial III, a scaled back commercial zone that allows for commercial development within carefully defined constraints.
The most recent technical delay boils down to legal linguistics, said Planning Director George Sioras.
“Most uses remain the same as defined by the Planning Board. Mainly, it comes down to our attorney giving a final blessing of that document,” Sioras said. “ In a nutshell, the new zoning is about shaping future development. The board did a great job of being sensitive to the town's goal of economic development and expanding the tax base while avoiding the possibility of full-blow strip mall development, in recognition of the Frost Farm.”
Chirichiello said it is important to settle the zoning change before considering the future of Route 28 heading south, beyond the farm. On the town's list of development priorities, the TIF district on Manchester Road and revitalization of the downtown are No. 1 and 2. Further development along Route 28 south, including extending water and sewer, is a distant third.
“We understand that businesses in that area are looking for a plan for bringing in the water and sewer, and as a matter of fact, the council has actually set aside money in the budget this year to begin engineering along Rockingham Road,” Chirichiello said.
“We've looked at what it will take to bring water and sewer in – at one time it was about $28 million, and we just don't have that kind of money right now. At the same time, I can foresee that once engineering comes back to us with some updated numbers, and once we see the TIF district at the other end of Route 28 take off, we may be able to do another TIF and tie the water and sewer into it,” Chirichiello said.
Bill Smith,owner of Rockingham Acres Garden Center, has been vigilant about attending the work sessions around rezoning – his business would be part of the new zone.
“I feel the board has been fair in hearing both sides and doing its best to maintain the ambiance of the Frost Farm as well as trying to allow landowners here to use our land in the highest and best manner,” Smith said.
“For me, it comes down to the fact that it's a high-volume road. It's no longer residential. You can't raise kids on this road – and the town of Derry could certainly use some new tax base,” Smith said. “With this zoning change, that would happen – and when water and sewer follow, the businesses will increase as a natural course of events.”
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