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Observations on town’s flawed public process

The regulations governing land use in Peterborough were developed by the Planning Board and approved by the voters of Peterborough to ensure that the scale, layout and density of proposed projects are consistent with the character of the town. The Zoning Board evaluates whether an applicant merits relief from these regulations and the Planning Board, among other duties, approves or disapproves site plans for certain types of development. This is done through a regulatory process that is supposed to be thoughtful, thorough and fair.

The recent completion of the regulatory process regarding the proposed expansion of the Scott-Farrar Home on Elm Street was arguably none of the above.

In our view, the so-called “expansion” was not correctly noticed (categorized), the proper variances were not applied for, salient issues were not properly or significantly addressed, and impacted neighborhoods were not given due consideration.

For example, the Zoning Board proceeded as if the proposed development was for a single use — as a supported care facility. In fact, it is a multi-use project that includes 25 multi-family units, 20 units of supported residential care, and an 18-bed nursing home. As a result, the Zoning Board overlooked the need for two variances before the project should have been allowed to move forward.

The 25 multi-family units by themselves exceed the density requirements of the property. When the additional 38 units of supported and nursing care are included, the square footage of this development exceeds that of Shaw’s and CVS combined. The configuration of the new building will be more comparable with the Gurnsey building on Main Street than with any building in the immediate neighborhood. The Zoning Board never seriously considered the issue of density in this case.

The proposed development is comparable to a retirement community and Peterborough already has a Retirement Community District. This project does not meet the density requirements of the Retirement Community District. It makes no sense that the dimensional requirements applicable to a retirement community should be stricter if it is built within the Retirement Community District, where retirement communities are allowed, than in the General Residence District where retirement communities are not allowed.

The applicant stated that impacts on the value of Union Street properties were not considered because those properties are “too far away” from the proposed project. We are abutters to Scott-Farrar and our houses are within 75 feet of the property. The approved three-story, 73,000 square foot facility is extremely large for these residential neighborhoods. The building’s size along with accompanying parking garage, parking lots, barn, night lighting and “escaped” light from the building interior will change the character of these neighborhoods. It is hard to imagine that this will not only adversely affect the value of our property, but our quality of life as well.

The authors of this column were never opposed to a reasonable expansion of the Scott Farrar facility. This was stated clearly, respectfully and often during the recently concluded Zoning Board and Planning Board regulatory process.

Having been members of Town boards ourselves, we appreciate that our boards consist of volunteers who contribute much time and effort to largely thankless tasks. We also appreciate the board members who respect a fair and thorough regulatory process.

However, we don’t feel that our legitimate concerns as property owners were seriously considered in this case and this is why we initially filed an appeal for a rehearing. In the end we chose to withdraw our appeal for financial and pragmatic reasons.

It is unfortunate that private property owners and concerned neighbors feel it necessary to use their own limited resources to point out process failures and to protect their own property values from potentially inappropriate development.

With all due respect to members of the boards, perhaps the complexities and issues involved in some land use cases are beyond the expertise and qualifications of volunteer members and a different way of handling complex issues is needed. Perhaps qualified Town Council needs to be brought in immediately in certain cases to assure proper notification of projects and proper process.

Let’s hope that moving forward our boards will conform to due process and give appropriate attention to legitimate issues and town land use ordinances. After all, these ordinances were approved by the voters in this community and they exist to protect individual property values and quality of life in Peterborough.

Matt Waitkins and Robert Wood live on Union Street in Peterborough.

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