The Town Council continued to its Oct. 19 meeting a public hearing on an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance to update sections related to housing opportunities in Londonderry.
Town staff, Town Attorney Mike Ramsdell and members of the public advised the Council to adopt the amendment, saying the change will bring the ordinance into greater compliance with State statutes and encourage smaller-scale projects that maintain the character of Londonderry’s residential areas.
Among the proposed changes, which are the result of six months of discussions among the Planning Board, town staff, consultant Jonathan Edwards and the public, are removing the phasing limitations and lowering the minimum required workforce housing units from 75 percent to 50 percent for workforce housing projects; the addition of “Small Workforce Housing,” “Dwelling, Multi-family Workforce,” “Affordable Elderly” and “Live-Work” categories and an amendment allowing accessory dwelling units in residential areas.
The Council’s primary concern focused on the addition of “Small Workforce Housing,” which would allow up to four workforce housing units on any residential, one-acre lot.
Geographic Information Services Manager John Vogl said the purpose of the amendment is to discourage large-scale, workforce housing apartment complexes that don’t fit the character of Londonderry’s rural community, while still meeting the State Workforce Housing Law requiring the Town to provide “reasonable and realistic opportunities for the development of workforce housing” in the majority of town.
Vogl noted the State doesn’t define what a community’s fair share requirement of workforce housing is, but demands a community be able to show it is providing reasonable opportunity for such housing.
“This is a stupid law and I hope to see the State Legislature get together and revisit it,” Chairman John Farrell said.
Councilor Joe Green said he feared the “Small Workforce Housing” use category would result in the buildup of residential areas akin to suburbs of Boston, where multi-family housing is crowded on small parcels.
“I have found many people from Massachusetts have moved to Londonderry for the rural aesthetics and country feel. This would kill that, in my opinion, and turn us into the Manchesters and Nashuas we’re trying to avoid,” he said. “This doesn’t have my support because four units in one acre is way too many, and that’s not what I want for Londonderry.”
Councilor Tom Dolan said he agrees with Farrell that the State Workforce Housing Law is not a well thought out law, but said if the Council doesn’t approve the proposed amendment, or something like it, the Town is in violation of the mandate.
“This put us in a conundrum and subjects us to remedies that could be worse than what we have in front of us,” he said. “This is not something I support with energy, but it’s something I’ll reluctantly support.”
“Like many things, this only takes one,” said Councilor Tom Freda, who worries that as soon as one person converts their home into four freestanding rental units in a residential neighborhood, many others will follow suit, realizing the potential income.
But Vogl and Edwards said such a conversion, particularly on a one-acre lot, would prove exceedingly difficult and expensive, requiring installation of septic that could accommodate the four families and overcoming a variety of other costly restrictions.
Additionally, Edwards noted such developments would be subject to quality control by the Planning Board.
Developer Richard Flier of 132 Pillsbury Road said he watched the process of amending the ordinance carefully, and that the examples of the very small clusters of workforce housing proposed were exemplary in terms of design and layout.
“If someone in a neighborhood had a whole street of 10 to 15 homes, with one or two of these clusters done properly, I think the neighborhood will go up (in value), not down,” he said. “It costs a lot to do these. These small projects are not what every developer wants to do. The small developers that do these have to make sure it’s marketable, and the lender also has to make sure it’s marketable. I think there’d be a lot of scrutiny from the lender. It would be insane to just put these up willy-nilly to think you will make money just by doing this.”
Flier noted the new use could also make it easier for “empty nesters,” who are living in large homes they can no longer afford, to remain in their neighborhood.
Councilors asked if it would be possible to strike the “Small Workforce Housing” category from the ordinance, but Vogl, Ramsdell and members of the public said the category ensures the Town is offering opportunity for workforce housing throughout Londonderry.
“I would recommend the Council doesn’t want to do that. I have serious doubts if that portion of the ordinance is stricken that it complies with the State mandate for reasonable and realistic opportunity for the development of workforce housing, because we can’t put large-scale workforce housing in neighborhoods,” he said. “Looking at the entire ordinance, I have serious doubts it will satisfy the State law (if ‘Small Workforce Housing’ is eliminated).”
Ramsdell noted he had serious reservations about earlier iterations of the amended ordinance, but that those concerns have been put aside.
He added he doesn’t think there’s any scenario under the amended ordinance where there will be a dramatic increase in the construction of four workforce housing units on one-acre parcels throughout neighborhoods in Londonderry.
“It’s economically unfeasible in Londonderry for that to happen, but the Council can make their own political decisions,” he said.
“I think it would be unwise to vote no on this tonight. Right now, as I understand the law; because we accepted this at the Planning Board level, we’re under its protection,” Mike Speltz of 18 Sugarplum Lane said. “We don’t want someone who is waiting for this to fail to table a proposal and have a third ‘Wallace Farm’ or ‘Stonehenge’ on our hands.”
“As one member of the Town, I have to balance risk and reward,” Green said.
The Council continued the public hearing to its Oct. 19 meeting, directing staff to work on fixing the issues around the “Small Workforce Housing” addition.
Edwards and Vogl said they will consider the Council’s concerns with how the projects would aesthetically fit into Londonderry neighborhoods, perhaps adding firmer guidelines around design for such developments.
But Edwards said he doesn’t “want to substitute one problem for another.”