Despite Residents’ Pleas, Zoning Board OKs Stonehenge Variances

The Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) approved three variances in a re-hearing for a workforce housing development on Stonehenge Road, despite testimony from members of the public that the variances requested will affect the character and property values of their neighborhood.

Windham developers Raja and Samir Khanna argued the workforce housing project is needed to satisfy a demand in Londonderry for affordable rental units, and that the project isn’t economically viable without all three variances.

Samir Khanna said their business has been located in Londonderry for years, but they have never built any properties in the community.

“For years we have gotten calls about Londonderry. It’s embarrassing to be located in Londonderry and not offer units there,” he said when asked why they want to develop workforce housing on the property. “There isn’t some mysterious tax break or magical wish I’ll get at the end of this. There’s a lot of growth in Londonderry and we believe there’s enough demand here.”

“The proposed use is a reasonable one, and this site was identified as suitable for workforce housing by the Town’s Workforce Housing Task Force,” said Manchester attorney William Tucker of Wadleigh, Starr and Peters, who represented Khanna at the re-hearing, which was continued from the Board’s Feb. 18 meeting.

Tucker argued that not granting the variances would create a hardship for the applicant, saying the variances are necessary to enable a reasonable use of the property.

But Pauline Caron of 369 Mammoth Road, who lives about a mile south of the intersection of Stonehenge and Mammoth roads, said, “a hardship refers to land use only.”

“If the land is reasonably suitable for a permitted use, then there is no hardship and no grounds for a variance,” she said.

The Board granted variances to the ordinance to allow construction of 24-unit buildings where 16-unit buildings are permitted; to allow the percentage of workforce housing units in the development to be limited to 50 percent where 75 percent is required; and to allow phasing of the development over three years, exempting the development from future implementation of growth control regulations.

Laconia-based Applied Economics researcher Russ Thibeault said it would cost the developers $4.5 million more to build the project without the variances, and that the profit margin for the project is “razor thin” even with all three of the variances.

Before continuing the public hearing to the March 19 meeting, the Board asked Khanna to provide specifications for the proposed units to Thibeault to analyze and share his conclusions with a third-party consultant.

“My fear was if they’re putting in fountains and gold painted fixtures,” member Neil Dunn said.

Khanna hired Jack Mettee of Mettee Planning Consultants in Dover to serve as the third-party consultant. Metttee concluded the proposed development features standard building construction.

“It may have high-end appliances, but nothing that would blow the numbers out,” Dunn said.

The workforce housing units are to be rented at a price that is no greater than 60 percent of the area’s median income – for Rockingham County that’s $1,440. The units at market price would be rented at higher prices to subsidize the workforce housing units.

Neighbors of the workforce housing development expressed concern that a healthy inventory of rental units substantially less expensive than the ones proposed will create an additional financial strain on the developers, who have said they anticipate a 5.5 percent return.

“Brady Sullivan has available units across the street for $1,200,” said Deb Paul of 118 Hardy Road, publisher of the Londonderry Times.

And other neighbors noted there are available units in town for under $1,000.

Samir Khanna told the Board vacancies are built into their business plan, and that “apartments are meant to operate with vacancy.”

Perhaps of greatest concern to neighbors was how the variances to allow taller, higher density buildings in a shorter period of time than required by the Town’s Zoning Ordinance will affect the rural, residential character of their neighborhood.

Members Jim Tirabassi and Bill Bernardino agreed, voting against the variance to allow 24-unit buildings where 16-unit buildings are permitted. The final vote to approve the variance was 3-2.

The Board voted 5-0 to approve the additional variances related to phasing of the project and the percentage of workforce housing units required.

“Build something smaller that’s more in scale with the neighborhood so it doesn’t have as much of an impact on the existing neighborhoods,” Paul said. “Part of the reason we live in Londonderry is because of the rural character. That’s why we have the ordinance, because we didn’t want big, box-style apartment complexes being built in the neighborhood.”

Paul noted that when local real estate agents reported in the developer’s application that the project won’t affect property values, they’re speaking to the assessed values of homes.

When neighbors try to sell their homes, increased traffic and the size of the buildings will affect the re-sale value, according to Paul.

“I love my town, but you’re forcing me to move. I won’t be able to sell my house. The traffic is already so bad, and what if this fails and is abandoned? What about the undue burden to people who already live in this area who have been paying their taxes and bought their home seeing open space and thought only new homes would go in there? Never in my wildest imagination did I believe this is what would happen,” Paul said.

The ongoing maintenance of the property is what will have a longer-term impact on properties surrounding it, Greg Stanley of 112 Hardy Road said. “There are other alternatives,” he said. “They could build less. This area isn’t like Vista Ridge or Wallace Farms with easy access to I-93. It’s in a much more congested area, where there are lots of accidents. Why can’t they move around some variables so they can use the land as they see fit so they won’t need a variance? We’re trying to preserve the character as much as we can; so, long term, it doesn’t have as much of an impact on us.”

Ultimately, the Board agreed that granting the variances was in the public interest, as doing so offers a realistic opportunity for workforce housing as required by state statute, which they noted trumps local ordinance.

The Town is in the process of amending the Zoning Ordinance related to workforce housing to address the issue of economic feasibility that the developer raised.

As a condition of the variance for accelerated phasing of the project, the developer must obtain site plan approval by the Planning Board.

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