After civil public hearing, Derry board rejects proposed zoning regs, returning them to planners

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2024 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Doug Friant, standing, moderated the meeting while Zoning Administrator Will Goodwin fielded most of the questions about the proposed bylaws <small>Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Doug Friant, standing, moderated the meeting while Zoning Administrator Will Goodwin fielded most of the questions about the proposed bylaws Photos by Shawn Cunningham

With more than 120 people in the Town Hall on Monday night and the memory of the heated exchanges when community members pushed back on proposed updates to Londonderry’s zoning regulations, many expected a fairly contentious hearing on the issue.

But with Moderator Doug Friant running the meeting and zoning administrator Will Goodwin fielding questions, the tone of the Select Board public hearing was mostly civil and constructive.

Friant started the hearing by explaining that it would be conducted like Town Meeting — without the motions or votes from the floor. Instead, the Select Board would be hearing directly from the public about the proposed zoning bylaws. He laid out the rules including how long each person could ask questions or comment and said he thought the Select Board and Planning Commission were willing to make changes.

According to Friant, at the end of the hearing, the board had the choice of

  • adopting the bylaws as written or
  • calling a Town Meeting to vote on the bylaws or
  • rejecting the bylaws and sending them back to the Planning Commission or
  • take no action at all.

He also explained that the Select Board could make minor changes or substantial changes. The latter would require more hearings and Friant hazarded the guess that the town would be discussing the bylaws for a while.

Goodwin told the audience that he would try to explain the bylaws in terms of what’s normal in zoning and that is different from town to town.

“What’s normal for Woodstock or Dorset is not for a Windham or Jamaica,” said Goodwin. “It’s pretty easy to ‘de-Woodstock’ this draft but there will still be some contentious items.” Goodwin also noted that some of the proposed bylaws are less restrictive than those currently in effect.

It was a standing room only crowd to talk zoning

It was a standing room only crowd to talk zoning

Additionally, Goodwin said that some people are reading commercial or industrial regulations and thinking those apply to residential properties. He added that existing properties and their uses would not be subject to new requirements, once they are approved. A property would only be under new regulations if the owner made substantial changes to it.

“Everything here is for new” applications, said Goodwin.

Two Londonderry innkeepers questioned the proposed 30-day time limit on guest stays since a large part of their business now comes from seasonal workers. And while these uses would be grandfathered going forward, one owner wondered if someone buying her business could continue operating that way.

“The permit follows the land, not the owner,” said Goodwin, while noting that that home occupations were one exception to that.

And there were comments objecting to rules that some likened to those set by “home owners associations.”  Speakers pointed to proposed regulations limiting the number of colors allowed on a sign or regulating the use of Christmas lights or how many flags a business can display. Residents also questioned the limit on garage sales per household (three days per year) and the fact that the proposed regulations don’t limit the number of vehicles on a property as long as the vehicles are registered with the state.

There were also more weighty questions. Pete Cobb said there is nothing that allows the building of a fire station. Goodwin agreed, saying that, in most towns, the fire department is part of town government and a new fire station would be treated as a municipal building. But in Londonderry , the two fire companies are private. Goodwin said that fact  — as well as questions raised about maximum building heights — would need to be looked at since the fire companies could have problems if new buildings are built to heights their ladders could not reach.

Another emergency-service related comment was that the first responders could set up a temporary landing zone for emergency helicopter landings, but would need a 25-acre parcel to construct a permanent one.

“The next step is me writing a draft from the things said tonight for some board to review,” said Goodwin.

Board closes hearing, votes to reject

After about 60 minutes, there were no more questions or comments, and the board voted to close the hearing and talk about next steps.

Board member Jim Fleming declared it a productive meeting and said that Goodwin now has much to do, so changes would not happen overnight.

The four remaining members of the Select Board discuss next steps before voting to reject the proposal

The four remaining members of the Select Board discuss next steps before voting to reject the proposal

Board Chair Tom Cavanagh said that the board may need to call a special meeting every week to meet the late October deadline to make changes to the zoning proposals.  He said he thought it would be difficult to accomplish, and added that — during the interim — a permit application would have to pass muster under both sets of bylaws – current and proposed. However, the only way around the “double bylaws” would be to reject the proposed bylaws, sending them back to the Planning Commission.

Saying that she saw “the glass half full,” Board member Martha Dale added that she liked what she heard Monday night.  “We have a fairly good start toward revising the bylaws,” she said, exhorting the board to work hard toward that.

Steve Twitchell said he thought the commission was eager to redeem itself and “chomping at the bit to get this right.” Twitchell said he thought the commission had been given a raw deal by some.

Dale suggested not making any decisions that evening. She then reminded Cavanagh that he had previously asked for a delay in voting on the proposed bylaws so he could read the draft regulations.

“Pause and process the information,” said Dale. “Do nothing, purposefully.”

Cavanagh, however, moved to reject the bylaws, sending them back to the Planning Commission for revising. The motion carried 3-1, with Dale the lone ‘no’ vote.

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