Not that simple

Opponents of a proposed outlet mall in Merrimack are trying a new tactic – they hope to raise the bar for passage of a zoning amendment that would pave the way for the project.

A group of residents who oppose the center filed a 58-signature protest petition in February that would require a two-thirds vote at the April 12 town meeting to approve the zoning change. Ordinarily, a simple majority would suffice. But it’s not altogether clear whether the protest petition is enough to require the larger vote.

The Merrimack outlet center is being proposed by New Jersey-based Chelsea Property Group Inc. It would include up to 650,000 square feet of upscale shops and restaurants. The land is owned by Nashua real estate developer Thomas Monahan.

New Hampshire RSA 675:5, which addresses protest petitions, holds in part that the two-thirds vote is required if there’s a petition signed by the “owners of 20 percent of the area within 100 feet immediately adjacent to the area affected by the change or across a street from such area.”

“That is the confusion,” Nancy Harrington of 11 Spruce St. in the Sargent Acres neighborhood that abuts the site, told the Nashua Telegraph.

That’s why Stephen Buckley, the planning department’s attorney, and Ed Boutin, the selectmen’s attorney, are jointly reviewing state law in order to issue an opinion on whether the law requires 20 percent of abutters, or owners of 20 percent of the abutting land, to sign the petition.

Since Fidelity Investments owns a large chunk of land abutting the 160-acre site where the center would be built, the attorneys’ interpretation could be key.

Further adding confusion to the matter is the location of the Fidelity property, which both abuts and is included in the I-2 zone that is the subject of the proposed amendment that would expand uses permitted in the zone to include a narrowly defined premium outlet center.

By filing the protest petition, Harrington – who is a member of the group opposing the project – told the Telegraph that outlet center opponents are using a legal tool at their disposal to try to level the playing field as they battle a company with deep pockets that already has purchased half-page newspaper advertisements promoting the zoning change.

Opponents fear the center will bring increased noise, traffic and crime and diminish the quality of life in their neighborhoods. They also say the center could cost more in terms of police and other town services than it would generate in tax dollars.

Other residents, however, support the center because of the tax relief it could bring to a cash-strapped community. They say commercial development of upscale shops is a good use of vacant land now zoned for light industrial uses, such as office parks, for which there is no demand.

“If it passes by a two-thirds vote, then the town has made a clear mandate, and we have to live with it,” Harrington said.

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