Originally published in the Manchester Journal on Jan. 10, 2018.
MANCHESTER — Manchester’s Planning Commission heard the first round of feedback on their proposed Zoning Ordinance at a public hearing Monday night.
While much of the discussion was consumed by questions and clarifications, some did raise objections to the proposed ordinance — particularly when it comes to increased building heights in the downtown district and the push to expand workforce housing.
“The Planning Commission will take all of the comments we receive this month and consider whether it’s ready to be forwarded to the Select Board, and maybe make some modifications before doing so,” said Planning Commissioner Janet Hurley, who noted that a second two hour hearing will be held on Jan. 22. “Then when the Planning Commission feels that it’s ready to be forwarded to the Select Board it will go to them for adoption or rejection.”
As all new permits will need to meet both the current and proposed ordinance once it is brought to the Select Board, the Commission hopes that the input received will help to shorten that process.
The first provision to draw questions was the Ordinance’s prohibition of new single story buildings in the Downtown district, the Town Center district, and the Mixed Use One district. Factory Point owner Bill Drunsic cited the Price Chopper plaza specifically, whose plans to redevelop have been left in limbo.
Though the permits for that project remain in effect, Hurley said that if a new application was submitted once the ordinance had passed that plaza would need to adhere to the two-story minimum as well.
“I don’t think it’s impossible to have a grocery store with something on the second floor,” Hurley said. “The idea of having two stories is to try to get back to that pedestrian oriented street-scape that is the historic form of a New England town.”
Local Lawyer Brad Myerson later took to the floor to state his objection to the proposed expansion of allowed building heights in the downtown district to 40 feet.
“I think it would be horrible, horrible, to increase building size to four stories,” Myerson said. “We have large buildings downtown of different architectural styles and sizes. It gives the downtown the appeal that draws people.”
Myerson referenced similar efforts in decades past that he says have failed to bring more residents to the downtown area.
“If people want to live downtown the two most important things are going to be affordability and the vibrancy of the town for people to walk everywhere,” Myerson continued. “I think that instead of expanding building size, if we want people to live in the downtown, we should look at other options to make it more affordable.”
Though other options were not readily apparent, the issue of affordable housing did raise a number of questions and comments from the audience. While there’s almost an excess of higher-cost housing, and subsidized housing options are available for lower income residents, there are few housing options for those making approximately the county median of $49,573, according to Commissioner Todd Nebraska.
“Someone who is a teacher at MEMS or who works for a police department making $55,000 a year, they don’t qualify for affordable housing,” he said. “Yet they have a very challenging time finding market rate housing in our communities.”
He added that there are two growing groups statistically seeking affordable housing in downtown, urban areas — millennials and baby boomers.
“There’s actually two age groups, as we move forward as community, that we need to think in terms of how we are going to provide an environment to attract those individuals to Manchester,” Nebraska said. “We can’t do it as a Planning Commission, all we can do is create an environment where developers can.”
“Unfortunately the whole taxing issue is driven by the value of the property and the statewide property tax, those are your two key players,” Drunsic said, adding that a house in Manchester may end up costing significantly more than a comparable house in nearby towns. “It wasn’t an issue when every town was allowed to tax on its own, but when Act 60 came along that changed the whole formula for us.”
Despite some criticisms the hearing concluded on a productive note, with the audience applauding the Commission for their hard work prior to adjourning.
“I’ve lived here for 55 years, and I see that we have done very well in the way we have developed our town,” said Sylvia Jolivette. “There’s no miracles, there’s no magic; it’s all happened slowly, but I think well thought out.
Reach Cherise Madigan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 802-490-6471.