NASHUA - Developer John Picard was attacked from all sides as neighbors skewered his proposal to build a so-called work-force housing complex at 502 W. Hollis St. before the Zoning Board of Adjustment unanimously rejected the plan late Tuesday night.
The board heard testimony from 20 residents vehemently opposed to the plan to build a trio of three-story apartment buildings with 36 units each, and eight detached condominiums on the 12.5-acre parcel site, the former home of the WSMN radio station.
Neighbors said the housing complex would ruin their neighborhood and devalue their homes. The five-hour session at City Hall ended when the panel denied six zoning permits Picard needed to enable the project.
Picard's lawyer, John Edwards, said Wednesday that his client will request a rehearing of the case. If that request is denied, the case will likely end up in Hillsborough County Superior Court, Edwards said.
The board also received letters from about 20 more people who urged members to turn down the plan, chairman Jack Currier said. Two letters were received from residents who supported the proposal, Currier said.
During the meeting, some residents called Picard an environmental scoundrel. Some called him a liar. Others said he was simply an inept businessman who made poor decisions while trying to build a 40-unit cluster condo development approved by the city for the site four years ago.
"He made the mistakes, not us,'' said resident John Fisher of Shore Drive. "It's not our fault and we shouldn't have to bail him out.''
Picard couldn't finish that project, he said, because of vast amounts of ledge on the property.
He said he spent $1.5 million trying to build the cluster condos before discovering the ledge was too problematic, making it economically impossible to complete the project.
However, he had no written documentation of any of the money he said he spent trying to rectify the problem.
"We have zero evidence of that,'' member Gerry Reppucci said, responding to an assertion by Edwards that removal of ledge constituted an economic hardship.
That hardship, Edwards said, justified a zoning permit to allow for the proposed apartments to be built on slab foundations.
"From where I'm sitting, I cannot accept the hardship argument based on ledge. I reject the hardship presentation,'' he said.
Other members concurred, saying the denial of the permits for the work force housing didn't mean Picard was being denied a reasonable use of the land. He could still build the cluster condos, they said, if he could somehow find a way to finance the project.
Picard's company is now under bankruptcy protection because of the cluster project and he admits he owes the city $100,000 in back taxes.
He had reached an agreement with the city to have the chief private financial backer of the rejected housing project, Bedford Lending Group, pay the back taxes, plus 18 percent interest, if the zoning and planning boards approved the proposal.
Now, Bedford Lending will probably pull out of the project, company principal Lewis Knapp said after the meeting.
The firm had planned to have the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development back a loan to Picard, Knapp said. That couldn't happen now, he said, unless the zoning board changes its mind on the case or Picard is successful in appealing the denial in superior court. Bedford Lending couldn't back the cluster condo project, Knapp added, because federal regulations don't permit HUD money being used for private single-family homes.
That was another reason Picard needed the zoning board's approval for the work-force housing. The property is in an R-9 zone, meaning only single-family homes can be built in the area in lots measuring at least 9,000 square feet.
Both neighbors and the Board of Alderman want the property to remain in the R-9 zone, Alderman-at-Large Brian McCarthy said.
Residents said Picard was in effect asking for a rezoning of the parcel, even though aldermen passed a resolution in 2000 stating that the property was remain in the R-9 zone after a supermarket chain tried to build on the site.
"When the aldermen passed a resolution for it remain specifically R-9, I think they meant it,'' board member Bob Carlson said.
Traffic on busy West Hollis Street was also a crucial issue for residents and the board.
Picard's traffic consultant said the impact of the work force would be insignificant in the area. The project would have generated about 80 trips out of the site during peak morning hours, according to a study that was based on models, not actual traffic counts. The board said basing the study on models instead of actual counts diminished its credibility.
Eight residents, including former Alderman Paula Johnson, slammed Picard for his tax delinquency, but the board said it was interested only in land use issues, not taxes.
"It is my opinion that the tax issue it is irrelevant to this board's consideration of this land use application,'' Reppucci said. Other members agreed.
Little was said Tuesday about returning WSMN radio to its former location. Picard said he has begun negotiations with station owner Thomas Monahan about doing that, but it was only touched on by Edwards during his presentation.
Edwards said neither he nor his client took the sharp criticism from residents personally, even though Currier and board members called some of it crass.
"We can't get worked up about that stuff personally,'' Edwards said. "People are upset about something that's near and dear to their hearts and that is their homes. But we will absolutely request a rehearing. We have to do that to keep the process going, and we're not going to let the process die.''
This article appears in the January 30 2009 issue of New Hampshire Business Review