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Public doubts lead to withdrawal of Exit 41 development application

June 04, 2014
LITTLETON— Four hours of discussion took place at the Opera House last Wednesday night. The application for a 90,000 square foot commercial facility near Exit 41 was the subject of discussion during a zoning board hearing. After the doubts from board members and the public during the long night, developer Richard Baccari II, from Providence, R.I., withdrew the application.

The development proposal would change about one-third of the 27-acre parcel, which is bounded by the Town of Bethlehem, I-93, and several residences along Morrison Hill Drive. Because of the number of nearby homes, the hearing attracted 40 people.

Mike Norman, of Horizons Engineering, provided the board with an overview of the plans to develop the site. He said preliminary discussions had occurred with state and federal regulators regarding the development's impact on wetlands.

Overall, Norman said 2.8 acres of wetlands disturbance would occur. The portion of the property left unchanged by the buildings and parking lot would be restricted from further development, Norman added.

The creation of a ten-foot high retaining wall, similar to how the Littleton Regional Healthcare site was raised, would occur. This, in addition to vegetative buffers, would shield homes from noise and light from the development, Norman suggested. "You're not going to see the building" from Cottage Street, he added.

Norman said the occupants of the large new commercial site and a smaller building on the former site of Exit 41 Rental were not set. Board chairman Eddy Moore informed the public that the unknown nature of the buildings' occupants was not relevant to the hearing. "We don't dictate as to who opens up a store," he declared.

Jody Hodgdon represented Baccari before the board. He provided an overview of how the development proposal met the criteria for a variance, which is required because the land is zoned residential.

The exact nature of the neighborhood was central to the evening's discussion. Hodgdon referred to the area as "very much a mixed use neighborhood," because of existing commercial development along Cottage Street. "A retail establishment being located in this neighborhood is not going to impact the character" of the area, Hodgdon said.

Through a variance, Hodgdon added, the board would approve activity "consistent with the area's essential use" and "allow a productive use of this property." He said the neighborhood was a larger area than just the abutting properties.

Andy Smith provided the board data regarding the impact of commercial development on home values. The basis of his numbers was the 2001 development on St. Johnsbury Road, the current home of Littleton Regional Healthcare. "There was not a drop off in value," Smith said. Although the proposed Exit 41 development "is going to be a change in the neighborhood, without a doubt," Smith said history suggested abutters would not see a loss in value.

Both the public and the board were not convinced by Smith's analysis. "We don't even know what's going in there," Philippa Evans said. Regarding the residences on Morrison Hill Road, Roxy Bowker added, "Those homes were built expecting that they remain a residential area."

Board member Sean Sweeney noted that Smith opposes Northern Pass because of the impact on property values. Smith said data has established a negative impact on property values already from the proposed tall electricity transmission towers, so he did not see the link between Northern Pass and the Exit 41 proposal. Nonetheless, Sweeney said Smith's view was "something in my mind that seems contradictory."

Kelly Ellsworth, who owns a nearby home, rejected the idea that her neighborhood would not change if the development went forward. "There is no way you're going to camouflage or hide something like that," Ellsworth said of the development. The major traffic increase and other effects from the commercial use would "degrade the quality of life," in the area, she continued.

"We've got to keep some space in this town for neighborhoods," Ellsworth concluded.

Barbara Astone echoed Ellsworth's concerns. The area "is zoned residential," she said. "We expect it to remain as residential," Astone concluded.

An abutting residential area in Bethlehem was another part of the neighborhood, according to Dan Lavoie, a member of the Bethlehem planning board. He noted people bought "high value view lots" on the hill that would be altered by the development. "You can't act in a vacuum," Lavoie continued, and he reminded board members, "You are the judges of what's reasonable here."

Of the developers, Jan Edick said, "They want to make money. That's not illegal." Nonetheless, he lamented how the development would impact wetlands. "Life on this planet depends on wetlands," he said. Edick did not believe corresponding wetlands protection in other areas was a good substitute for the destruction of wetlands in Littleton.

In conclusion, Edick said, "This is a horrible application."

Not all public comments were opposed to the development. Dann noted the employment opportunities available from new commercial space. "We're growing," he said, "There are people here that will benefit." Regarding the loss of views Bethlehem property owners would face, Dann said, "That's just life."

Herb Lahout echoed Dann's view on the importance of more employment in the area. "The area desperately does need jobs," he said. In making a decision, Lahout suggested to board members, "Just use your Yankee common sense."

Reservations on the application were expressed soon after board members opened their deliberations. Moore suggested upfront that the character of the neighborhood would be negatively impacted. He said a large commercial facility in what is predominantly a residential area went beyond the intent of the zoning ordinance in general and the variance process in particular.

Sweeney agreed with Moore. He believed the application went beyond the idea of a variance. Rather than a purpose involving only minor changes to the area, Sweeney said the 90,000 square foot facility would be "abandoning that purpose, wholesale."

"The board cannot change the ordinance," Sweeney continued. Summing up his doubts on the proposal, he concluded, "In my opinion, we don't have the right to approve it." Action at town meeting, rather than a vote of the zoning board, was the way to go, Sweeney suggested.

New member Art Tighe focused on the major increase in traffic. For abutters, he said, "Your quality of life is going to change."

Fellow board newbie Jerry LeSage said the proposal would bring growth, which can be desirable. Nonetheless, he declared, "This is in a residential neighborhood."

As board members considered the information before them, Baccari consulted with others. He passed his conclusion on to Hodgdon, who rose to inform the board, "Before you go to a vote, the applicant would like to withdraw the application."

After some board discussion, Moore said consultation with the town's attorney was in order to determine the proper course of action. Thus, the board kept the hearing open until its June 10 meeting.

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