Delay OK'd on plan for 'work force housing'

NASHUA – After hearing 3-1/2 hours of testimony, mostly from homeowners vehemently opposed to the project, the zoning board of adjustment on Tuesday delayed action on a proposal by a local developer to build a so-called “work-force housing” project at 502 W. Hollis St., the site of the former WSMN radio station.

The site is in an R-9 zone, meaning only single-family homes can be built there on lots measuring 9,000 square feet, which is why John Picard is requesting seven variances to enable the project.

Picard wants to build two four-story, 64-unit apartment buildings, eight condominiums and two medical facilities on the 12-acre site across the street from several city facilities, including the police department, the public works garage and Nashua High School South.

The developer and consultant, Alan Manoian, said Picard’s work-force housing project would allow police officers, public works employees, teachers and administrators to live in the apartments or condos and walk to work.

But the project is controversial, in part, because Picard never finished a 40-unit cluster condo development approved by the city four years ago. In 2006, Triangle Credit Union had a proposal to build a bank on the site that was rejected by the zoning board.

Picard’s lawyer, John Edwards, of Boston, said the cluster condo project was never completed because of vast amounts of fractured ledge beneath the soil on the site.

“The property turned out to be a nightmare of fractured ledge,” he said.

Edwards maintained Picard was unaware of how vast the ledge problem was until he began to build the cluster development 14 months ago, an argument some board members had difficulty swallowing.

“I’m troubled, surprised or stunned that such a huge, unrecognized amount of ledge is there, and I’m struggling as to why there could be such an unrecognized risk of developing that property,” Shaw said.

Edwards said Picard would have to pay close to $750,000 in excavation costs to remove the ledge and reduce the number of condos that could be built on the site from 40 to about 34 to complete the project.

The excavation costs would be prohibitive and the reduction in the number of condos that could be built would make it impossible for his client to turn a profit on the development, Edwards said.

The company Picard formed to build the cluster condos is under bankruptcy protection, and he said he owes the city close to $100,000 in back taxes.

Speaking in favor of the proposal were Edwards; Manoian; a traffic engineer; Lewis Knapp of Bedford Lending Corp., the chief financial backer of the plan; and former Mayor Bernie Streeter, of 26 Indiana Drive.

“I think this community needs more work-force housing,” Streeter said, adding that half of all municipal employees live outside the city because they consider housing costs in Nashua to be unaffordable.

But Ward 5 Alderman Michael Tabacsko, who represents the area, said that even at the height of the power outage, he had received at least 50 phone calls and e-mails from constituents, all of whom opposed Picard’s plan.

Tabacsko noted that in 2000, when a developer proposed building a supermarket in the area and buying homes to make room for the project, residents fought the plan, and it never went beyond the discussion stage. Shortly afterward, aldermen passed a resolution stating the area was to remain in the R-9 zone.

Edwards said Picard considers the R-9 zoning to be a hardship because the land-use restrictions and the costs of removing the ledge prevent him from making a reasonable use of the property.

But Andy Bauer, a lawyer for Pitary Homes, which owns abutting properties, said development costs can’t be considered a hardship under state law.

“There is no hardship on the land,” Bauer said. “It is a self-imposed hardship brought on by poor planning.”

Traffic generated by the 12 structures Picard wants to put on the site would bring in about same number of vehicles as 150 single-family homes, according to traffic estimates.

Overall, 16 people spoke against the proposal. Several residents of White Plains Drive area, near the rear of the development site, said the 128 apartments Picard wants to build would overlook their homes, violating their privacy.

“We’re going to feel like bugs under a microscope,” resident Kathy Rivard said.

Arnold Canner, of the nearby Ledgewood Hills development, said Edwards was at times vague and evasive in his presentation to the board.

“They kept as much of the information and details as they could from you,” he told the board in rebutting some of Edwards’ statements. “We feel the board should be able to separate facts from barnyard material.”

Members Robert Shaw and Gerry Reppucci wanted to press on until at least 11 p.m. and possibly vote on the proposal that night.

Voting for the motion to table the plan until Jan.13 were Chairman Sean Duffy and members Kathy Vitale and Jack Currier, who said they needed more to time to review information, including an analysis of the proposed project’s impact on traffic on busy West Hollis Street.

When the board reconvenes next month, no new testimony will be taken and no additional information will be accepted, Duffy said.