Council, Planning Board Debate Mutual Goals

The Derry Town Council and the Derry Planning Board held a joint workshop to hammer out their mutual goals. The agenda was developed by each body contributing questions and issues, and most of them turned out to be mutual.
The agenda for the Tuesday, Dec. 3 meeting included three sections, Economic Development, Zoning and Code Enforcement, and the subsets of these were Route 28 South, Downtown Derry, recreation and new parks, review of town-owned property, zoning and zoning changes, the new sign ordinance, possible Blight and Littering ordinances, and giving Code Enforcement Officer Bob Mackey more power to enforce the rules.

Council Chairman Michael Fairbanks moderated the meeting and introduced the first item, Route 28 South. Planning Chair David Granese said his vision is to “bring some nice retail into the area, and get rid of the ‘Auto Mile,’” a section of the road earning its nickname because of its many used car lots.
Granese noted that his board has been studying Mixed Use Developments with an eye to possibly establishing them in the Route 28 South area. The concept, which includes retail or business in front and single-family homes in the rear, would enhance the area, he said.
Planning Board member Jim MacEachern noted that the Master Plan calls for eventually extending town water and sewer up “Ryan’s Hill,” the informal nickname for the area. Most of the area is zoned General Commercial, and MacEachern said, “If we extend town water and sewer, we’re going to have to take another look at General Commercial.”
The area is not suitable at present for a “nice restaurant” or larger business because the lots only have wells and leach fields, MacEachern added, and upscale businesses would require town water and sewer.
“We need to think, ‘What do we really want down there?’” MacEachern said.
Planning Director George Sioras said some extension of water and sewer, up Route 28 to the mobile home park, is planned for fall 2014.
But Planning Board member Randy Chase wasn’t excited about mixed use. “The only place I’ve ever seen it work,” he said, is in an urban downtown where the first floor was retail, the second business offices, and the third apartments.
“The kind of mixed use we’ve been asked to explore? Time and time again, I’ve seen it fail,” he said.
Planning Board vice-chair John O’Connor observed that to make mixed use work, the town would need 30 to 40 acres. And single-family homes weren’t high in priority on previous surveys of residents, he added.
“Also,” he said, “we have to look at what available land we have left.”
Fairbanks said an action item for the Council would be figuring out its vision for 28 South.
The action item was the same, with additions, for the beleaguered Derry Downtown, the urban strip along East and West Broadway.
“We have a great downtown,” Granese said. He praised the town for putting utilities underground. He also said it was clean and had plenty of parking. But, he added, “It looks better at night. You can’t see the dilapidated buildings, you can’t see the vacant lot next to the Opera House.”
Granese said the two boards need to look cooperatively at attracting business. But it will be difficult, he and other members agreed, because “the property owners who don’t live here don’t care about downtown.”
O’Connor, a previous member of the Derry Downtown Committee, said he shared the frustration the committee and the business owners had. They made suggestions to a previous Council, he said, but that Council was divided and nothing got done.
There is plenty of parking, Chase agreed, but it’s not user-friendly. Much of the public parking is in dark areas, he said, and there’s a perception that it’s not safe at night.
“We have to have something that makes people want to come here,” Chase said.
The talk naturally circled to the proposed Woodmont Commons in Londonderry, that town’s first mixed-use development, and how it will impact Derry. MacEachern said, “This is a golden opportunity for Derry to learn from Londonderry. We need to look at what’s going to happen over there, and put the right things here.”
He reminded the Council that it has the power to enact eminent domain and take property.
Planning Board member Ann Alongi suggested developing a three-tiered system before invoking eminent domain, including a warning first and then a fine.
Councilor Mark Osborne, an attorney, said that “under no circumstances” could the town seize property solely for economic development. “You have to have a solid municipal purpose, such as expanding a road,” he said.
MacEachern said, “It would not be an easy decision, nor a popular one.”
The action items for Downtown included the Council’s establishing a vision, working with Londonderry on the 600-plus-acre Woodmont development and how it will affect Derry, and working with out-of-area owners on the blight issue.
The issue of town-owned property was discussed, with a focus on the Abbott Court and Sawyer Court parcels downtown. While Councilor Tom Cardon wanted to see a park in the area, to attract people downtown, Councilor Al Dimmock said he was worried about vandalism. 
Councilor Brad Benson advocated putting the property “out on the street” with an RFP (Request for Proposals), noting, “It has water, sewer and natural gas.”
The Council agreed to review all town-owned property, obtaining a list from Chief Financial Officer Frank Childs, and to hold public hearings on the possible sale of parcels.
Councilor Neil Wetherbee lobbied for a closer look at the TIF (Tax-Increment Financing) District, where residents recently held off an effort to build a Dumpster Depot off Ashleigh Drive. “It’s 2020 hindsight,” Wetherbee said, explaining why the joint boards need to be clear on what they want in the TIF District.

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