The Town Council voted 3-2 to approve rezoning two Mohawk Drive properties to be developed into an upscale wine bistro, Cabonnay Wine and Cuisine.
Chair John Farrell and Councilor Joe Green voted against rezoning 6 and 8 Mohawk Drive from Commercial-IV to C-I.
Attorney Thomas Aylesworth, who represented the condominium owners abutting the parcels to be rezoned, said the request has the appearance of spot zoning and argued that Windham developer Cornelius de Jong does not need the zoning change to build his bistro.
But Town Attorney Mike Ramsdell said it’s his opinion the ordinance, if passed, would not result in spot zoning.
“Spot zoning requires that a parcel of land gets singled out for treatment inconsistent with any of the other surrounding land for a variety of circumstances,” Ramsdell said. “Rezoning here would not result in singular treatment, but rather it would be consistent with the majority of land that surrounds the property. I don’t think there’s any reasonable challenge based on spot zoning.”
The proposed bistro is to be housed in a long, townhome-style structure with a brick façade, featuring an atrium and upstairs art gallery.
In order to establish upscale gardens on the property, the design for the site takes advantage of setbacks on the property and features a curved design for the parking lot that increases green space.
De Jong said the property must be re-zoned to accommodate the height of the bistro’s art gallery, noting the office building already located on the site was developed under C-I zoning.
“To actualize the full use of the concept with the gallery and the atrium is only possible in C-I. If zoned C-IV, the properties cannot accommodate the atrium concept, the gallery or the office space,” de Jong said. “I want to reiterate, this is not a restaurant. It’s a quiet, restful wine house.”
In addition to fully utilizing the lot in developing the bistro and gardens, de Jong’s attorney said rezoning the parcels would expand potential use of the site.
When asked if he is still willing to work with abutting condominium owners, who are opposed to construction of the bistro, de Jong said he has reached out to Harvard Management “and it has been an arduous process.”
De Jong told the Council he received an email from Aylesworth saying Harvard Management isn’t willing to negotiate, but is interested in over $50,000 for renovations to its building.
“This has been a very aggressive stand against us,” he said. “Everything on this building so far has been me showing up saying, let’s fix what has been a failed lot. We’re spending virtually thousands of dollars for gardens unheard of for a commercial property. It’s incredibly disheartening to find myself in these circumstances where I have stood up and said let’s do something nice and we have gotten this incredibly negative response.”
But Sharon Reed of 77 Granite St., noted de Jong purchased the properties knowing what restrictions existed.
Additionally, Reed expressed concern because the building is so specialized, saying it would likely be knocked down and something else would go in if the bistro were to go out of business.
“I think this is setting a dangerous precedent for any other business owner,” she said.
Green said he takes his vote to change zoning seriously, and that it would be possible for the bistro to be constructed without rezoning the parcels.
Councilor Jim Butler said he has walked the site, and the architectural style de Jong is asking for is close to the design of Mr. Steer Meats.
“Historically this has been zoned for Commercial-I, and it was rezoned to C-IV,” he said. “It you want to talk about spot zoning, it could have been spot zoning then.”
Butler added it’s highly unlikely the building would be knocked down if de Jong’s bistro does fail.
“I talked to a lot of people in town, and the general consensus is people would like to see this happen,” he said. “I have lived in town for 28 years, and have gone to the property. I think it would be a good addition and I think it would strengthen the properties around it.”
Councilor Tom Dolan said his primary concern when changing zoning is the “bait and switch,” when residents buy a property under certain zoning, and then an arm of the government comes and changes the zoning of a parcel abutting their property.
However, “well over 90 percent of the current owners bought abutting properties when this property was C-I, so the expectation when they bought their homes was the property was a C-I. That took that concern away from me,”
“I have heard from some people who live at Kendallwood (Condo Association). I have heard the pros and cons,” Farrell said. “I hope, if this goes forward, Mr. de Jong lives up to what he has stated in public and works with these good people. I hope they work very closely together and something good comes out of it.”
“We are glad the zoning for 6 and 8 Mohawk Drive has been restored to the C-I zone it has been for decades and that it is again consistent with all neighboring commercial parcels. We thank the Londonderry Town Council for their consideration, their strength in leadership, and their judiciousness,” Rivierview said in an official statement following the Council’s decision. “We extend our deepest appreciation to all those who encouraged and supported us and will work hard at making Cabonnay Wine and Cuisine a proud addition to the Londonderry landscape. For us, this project remains about hope, heritage, community, quality and fixing decades of deterioration through beautification.”