By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- A special Council meeting has been set for March 23 to revisit a tabled action item from Tuesday night's meeting, involving a stretch of wetlands behind the proposed Walmart.
Tuesday's vote would have moved the project a step closer to construction.
Thursday, Councilor Neil Wetherbee called for the meeting, to accept the tabled easement amendment that would allow a road to be built on 2.5 acres of existing conservation land leading up to the site off Ashleigh Drive. In exchange, the town would receive $100,000 toward the purchase of future conservation land.
Left in limbo is a 14.5-acre stretch of wetlands that currently provides a buffer to residents living behind the proposed building site. That land was offered to the town by Walmart, and considered by the Conservation Commission. But in the end, it was decided that the $100,000 would be a better long-range investment in the town's conservation holdings.
Tuesday, as the vote was in process, Councilor Janet Fairbanks requested that the Council table the vote until the next scheduled meeting, three weeks away. She wanted to find out if there was any way to renegotiate with Walmart to get something in writing that would prohibit them from developing that land, in perpetuity.
According to Conservation Commission Chair Margi Ives, the land, while environmentally vital, is considered a "low value wetlands," because it doesn't abut other protected land, and isn't part of the New Hampshire Wildlife Action Plan.
"We thought it would make more sense to try to get the money and use it on land with higher ecological value," Ives said.
She said the Conservation Commission has spent months looking at all options. Part of the process included successfully lobbying for Walmart to move a proposed access road, which not only makes residents happier about the plot plan, but also has less impact to existing wetlands.
Wetherbee said after Tuesday's meeting, he immediately regretted not pushing for a vote, despite Fairbanks' misgivings.
Thursday Wetherbee sent out an e-mail to his fellow Councilors requesting the special meeting to avoid delaying the project for three more weeks.
"I think it is important to remember that Walmart walked away from this project just a few years ago," said Wetherbee.
He said that while he didn't believe there was any real danger of that happening again, after thinking about what transpired at Tuesday's meeting, he felt the Council was sending mixed signals about its commitment to this project.
"And not just to Walmart, but to our Town Administrator, who we have given specific direction to, that keeping this TIF project revenue neutral is our No. 1 goal," said Wetherbee.
Yesterday Anderson said with this project -- as with any project -- delays mean money.
"From my perspective this has been fully vetted in front of the Conservation and Planning boards, so my feeling is a delay is just money and time," Anderson said.
Councilor Kevin Coyle said Wetherbee's call for a special meeting is "absolutely ridiculous," and also represents a waste of time and money.
"There's no hurry. Walmart said they could wait three weeks. Their process is ongoing. We're not delaying it in any way," said Coyle. "This is about power for Neil and Brad (Benson). They didn't like that Janet wanted to put it off. It's simply about power and control."
Coyle said other municipalities commonly refrain from voting on matters the same night as a public hearing.
"It's a routine practice that allows people to sit and think about an issue before voting," Coyle said. "This was the first I'd heard about the Conservation Commission giving up that 14 acres. I was going to go out and walk the site, to see what condition it's in."
Council Chair Brad Benson said he believes the Conservation Commission did its due diligence and came back with the best decision for the town.
"They decided to let Walmart use a half acre of wetlands and mitigate it for the town to buy better quality conservation land," Benson said.
He added that down the road, even if Walmart tried to backtrack on its current position, that it has no plans to build there, the company would have to go through a tedious process that would involve stringent local restrictions on useas well as state DES requirements, as well.
"We just delayed them three weeks. We need to get them through this process. It's the start of a major development for Derry," Benson said. "I know there is a perception that the purchase of conservation land hasn't been fair and balanced. But that's not true. Right now we have our town administrator looking into three parcels of interest on the west side of Derry -- there are no boundaries when it comes to conservation land," Benson said.
Resident Maureen Rose, who spoke during Tuesday's public hearing against giving up the 14.5-acres of wetlands to Walmart, said Thursday that she accepts that this is, likely, a "done deal" with Walmart.
"Wildlife and wetlands are important all over town, and in light of all the development on Tsienneto Road, that's driving wildlife toward that area, they should be looking at preserving that land," Rose said.
"Right now nobody thinks that land is developable. But regulations can change. Fourteen acres is a lot of land. We need green and we need trees to absorb the damage in the air, from cars and other pollution. If the Conservation Commission isn't going to pay attention, who is going to?" Rose said. "I know it's a done deal, and they're going to take their $100,000. All we can do is shine a light on them."
By noon Thursday Anderson said that Councilors Joel Olbricht, David Milz and Benson had agreed to the meeting, which was enough to move forward with the meeting, under the town's Charter. Although there is no public comment, the 7 p.m. meeting is open to the public.
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