Developers propose retail-specific zoning plan

MERRIMACK – In September, residents fretted that nothing would guarantee that a retail center of upscale outlet stores would be built if a zoning ordinance changes a parcel of undeveloped land near their neighborhoods from light industrial to commercial.

On Tuesday, developers returned to the Planning Board with the draft of a three-page ordinance they said would lock-in the parcel in question to only that type of retail center.

“We’ve laid our cards on the table with this ordinance,” said Morgan Hollis, a Nashua attorney representing the developer, Chelsea Property Group of Roseland, N.J.

“Even if we disappear, that’s all that would be allowed if this ordinance is passed,” Hollis said.

Some residents weren’t convinced.

“You have to understand my history,” said Nancy Harrington of 11 Spruce St.

Harrington said she has owned her home for 37 years. In that time, change after disruptive change has occurred near her home, despite assurances from town officials that zoning laws would prevent that from happening, she said.

“Assurances don’t mean diddly squat,” she said.

The zoning ordinance was only discussed at the meeting, and no action was taken. The developers are scheduled to return to the Planning Board again – the next time to discuss a detailed study of the traffic impact the center might have.

Residents once again packed the Town Hall courtroom to hear developers pitch a proposal for a center on 160 acres at the northwest corner of Industrial Drive and the F.E. Everett Turnpike near Exit 10.

Many of those residents own homes near the site. For three years, they have been fighting various plans from different developers to change the zoning from industrial to commercial to allow a mall there.

The residents fear a mall could dramatically increase noise and traffic in their neighborhoods, disrupting their lives and lowering property values.

The land is owned by Nashua real estate developer Tom Monahan. Chelsea, the current group under contract to buy the land if the zoning change is approved, built a similar-size center of roughly 600,000 square feet in Wrentham, Mass., off of Interstate 495 southwest of Boston.

For the Merrimack project to proceed, the board must recommend that zoning be changed from light industrial to commercial. Voters would have to approve the change at the annual Town Meeting in April.

The board could vote not to put forth the zone change to a vote. If that happens, the only way the proposed change could appear on the ballot is if it’s petitioned on.

In each of the past two years, a proposal for retail development at the site died when the Planning Board voted not to recommend the change.

The difference this time around is a specific ordinance was presented to the board detailing such things as buffers and setbacks and restricting the sizes and types of stores that would be allowed.

The ordinance would permit only “outlet village shops” within the parcel’s Industrial-2 zone. It defines that type of development as having a center courtyard and connecting walkways.

No single shop can exceed 40,000 square feet under the proposed ordinance. This would eliminate mall anchor stores and “big box retailers,” like Home Depot and Wal-Mart, said Hollis, the developer’s attorney.

Mark Silvestri, senior director of development and acquisitions for Chelsea, told board members and residents the center would be roughly half the size of Pheasant Lane Mall and would draw 80 percent of its customers from south of Merrimack.

Most of the traffic to the mall would be from Exit 10 of the turnpike, minimizing disruption to residents, he said.

But several of those residents said the specific plans were irrelevant and should not even have been presented to the board. Instead, the board should have weighed only the zoning change, and whether Merrimack should lose more industrial land to commercial development.

“This is not before us today,” Mike Mills of 7 Arbor St. told the board, motioning toward preliminary site drawings Chelsea displayed. “It’s inappropriate for this meeting,” Mills said, adding later, “I’d like to notify the board I believe you are acting out of order.”

Planning Board member Peter Gagnon took exception to Mills’ comments.

“This is a graphic representation of what the zoning ordinance would do,” Gagnon said, referring to the site plans.