Compromise on store is the answer

For months now Dollar General has been going back and forth with the New Ipswich Zoning Board of Adjustment, as the company tweaks its proposal to build a 9,100-square-foot store on the downtown land where Central Elementary School now sits vacant. Dollar General is willing to pay more than asking price for the building, which belongs to the Mascenic School District. The company would then tear the school building down, footing the bill for the demolition, including any issues related to asbestos or other hazardous materials. Dollar General would then build a new store on the land.

The hang-up is that the retailer wants more than 9,000 square feet in a part of town where small retail is limited to 1,500. The school building was built before zoning went into effect, so some type of reuse would probably be allowed. But no one has come forward with any offers to buy the school, and Board Chair Jeffrey Salmonson, in a letter to the ZBA, said Dollar General’s offer may be the only opportunity to sell the building.

Opinions are sharply divided in town. Opponents cite concerns about the size of the proposed store, its potential impact on real-estate values and how well the store would fit in the town’s historic district. Supporters say the store will generate tax revenue and relieve the School District of a substantial white elephant of a building, without having significant impact on the neighborhood.

So ZBA members now have an opportunity to be creative when they continue their deliberations next month. Dollar General has indicated a willingness to be flexible on the design of the new building, in order to make it fit the neighborhood. The company appears open to discussion regarding materials, roofline and signage. The Zoning Board has the option of setting reasonable conditions when it grants a variance, which could address some of the concerns about parking, lighting, noise, etc. This could be the town’s best shot at replacing a looming eyesore with an attractive, modern building that could be a retail center for years to come.

The real sticking point is the size; the new store would be six times larger than the zoning allows. That will be hard for the board to justify, no matter how attractive Dollar General is willing to make the store.

Is the company also willing to reduce the size of its proposed building? If it is, perhaps a solution can be reached that will satisfy most residents of New Ipswich. Approving something that fits in with the nearby gas station, bank and market would be far more preferable than having the old school continue to sit empty or asking school district voters have to pay to tear it down. But a building six times bigger than the zoning allows really stretches the limits of the word “variance.”

We urge the Zoning Board and Dollar General to keep all options open. A smaller store may be the best compromise. Let’s hope everyone can meet halfway and come up with a well-thought-out solution.

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