By APRIL GUILMET
Union Leader Correspondent
LONDONDERRY -- The town manager is denying that nonpublic meetings involving Woodmont Commons developers and community leaders last summer should have been public under the state’s rightto- know law.
In response to criticism from a former Londonderry Housing and Redevelopment Authority member and a resident who runs an informational website, David Caron said yesterday that town officials were acting within their legal rights when they attended several nonpublic meetings with Woodmont Commons developers early last summer.
The town’s Design Review Committee, which consists of representatives from Londonderry’s planning, public works, building, police and fire departments, participated in several preliminary meetings with Woodmont developers in June 2010, Caron confirmed.
“They offered comments based on design issues and other concerns,” Caron said. “To be clear, these meetings are not in the context where minutes are kept or required.” Caron stressed that, unlike regular Town Council and Planning Board meetings, the town isn’t required to post “these types of meeting.”
“This is far from uncommon,” Caron said yesterday afternoon. “The only difference would be the sheer magnitude of this project.”
According to Caron, the committee regularly meets with developers before the public unveiling of plans in front of the Planning Board, with representatives from each department offering their feedback.
“During better economical times, we see these type of meetings several times per week,” Caron said.
The town’s Design Review Committee is, essentially, a team of department managers and other board or commission members who report their findings to the town’s Planning Board on an advisory basis.
“They’ve been in existence forever,” noted Caron, who is unsure how the group originated. He said the committee members aren’t “appointed in the sense that boards and commissions are.” Former Londonderry Housing and Redevelopment Authority member Jack Falvey, who oversees an e-mail chain aimed at keeping residents informed on Woodmont Commons development, expressed concern over the nonpublic meetings.
“I’m not sure how nonpublic meetings work in our state. As a commissioner on the Londonderry Housing and Redevelopment Authority I know we went 25 years without a single nonpublic meeting,” Falvey said in an e-mail sent earlier this week. “We put several hundred million dollars on Londonderry’s tax rolls by working with all sizes and shapes of developers without meeting in secret with anybody.”
The Woodmont project became possible as developers envision it in early January 2010, when the Town Council approved Planned Unit Development zoning. Around the same time the PUD was passed, Woodmont Commons developer Mike Kettenbach said that option could prove ideal for the orchard land. PUD zoning allows developers of a parcel or parcels of land to propose a master plan for development. In order to fall under the PUD, a parcel must contain 100 contiguous acres of land. However, that land may be subsequently subdivided based on the master plan.
The master plan for Woodmont, proposed by Pillsbury Realty Development, LLC, includes an estimated 650,000 square feet of retail, 1,200 new homes, three hotels and 700,000 square feet of commercial space, with the remaining 40 percent of the property reserved for open space and agricultural uses. Last fall the Woodmont development team began hosting a series of public community “design charette” meetings with the intention of getting public feedback on the project.
Resident Glenn Douglas, who operates the Londonderry Town Underground website, attended a September 2010 public workshop and in an entry posted on his website on Sept. 14, 2010, commented on previous, seemingly nonpublic meetings.
“I heard multiple times that the first charette was held three months ago with ‘state and local officials,’” Douglas wrote.
“Three months would be June,” he continued.
During an e-mail exchange Douglas had with Town Councilor Mike Brown, Brown wrote: “It is my understanding that the meeting you are referring to was solicited by the developers themselves. One member of the Council attended the meeting, which was of an informational nature only,” he continued, referring further inquiries to Caron.
Greg Sullivan, an attorney for the New Hampshire Union Leader who specializes in First Amendment issues, said state law does not support Caron’s assessment of the meetings.
“There’s no question,” Sullivan said last night. “If an advisory committee is designated or approved by any board or agency of the governing body, this is, indeed, covered by the public proceedings rules of the right-to-know law.”
New Hampshire’s right-toknow law, RSA 91-A, states that “all meetings, whether held in person, by means of telephone or electronic communication, or in any other manner, shall be open to the public.”
State law defines “public proceedings” as any transaction affecting any or all citizens via “any board, commission, agency or authority, of any country, town, municipal corporation, school district, or other political subdivision, or any committee, subcommittee or subordinate body thereof, or advisory committee thereto.”
An orchard no longer
On Jan. 28, 2010, Woodmont Orchards, owned by the Lievens family for nearly 80 years, was officially sold to Pillsbury Realty Development LLC. The Lievens family had ceased farming their land the previous summer.
In October 2008, town officials in Hollis announced that a lease of town-owned orchard land also used by Woodmont Orchards was set to expire and hinted that the Lievens family, which operated orchards in Hollis, Lyndborough and Londonderry, were retiring from the apple business.
At that time, property owner Robert Lievens confirmed that changes were under way at the Londonderry location, and though he did not elaborate, he did hint that “several negotiations were under way.”
According to the property deed, Pillsbury Realty Development purchased the property last winter for approximately $7 million. Kettenbach, head of real estate acquisitions for the DeMoulas supermarket chain and a Massachusetts resident, is listed as the principal property holder.