Londonderry residents have been waiting for months to weigh in on Woodmont Commons, a 600-plus acre development with 1,300 homes, thousands of feet of office and retail space, medical buildings and hotels to be built partly on Woodmont Apple Orchard.
And they're going to have to wait a little longer.
Residents, who have been tracking plans for the $2 billion development, which is expected to go up in stages over the next 20 years, have been asking questions for more than a year about how the project will affect the town and quality of life.
Pillsbury Realty Development asked the planning board for another continuance on Woodmont Commons. It was scheduled to go before the board for a public hearing and acceptance of an application for a planned-unit development, a special type of development with flexible zoning meant to attract large, revenue-generating projects. The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, July 11.
“(The developer) has indicated that they need more time to evaluate the response of the third-party consultant,” said Community Development Director Andre Garron, referring to a report from Howard/Stein-Hudson Associates, a Boston-based consulting firm hired to review the application for Woodmont Commons.
“There were many issues identified by our third-party consultant's report,” Garron said.
Cortland Drive resident Jack Falvey has been heading up local opposition to Woodmont Commons and the planned-unit development or PUD process, which allows developers to sidestep existing zoning laws and propose mini-master plans with their own zoning plan consistent with the project. Once a PUD application is approved, the Planning Board reviews specific site plans to make sure they conform to the developer's PUD application, but the Town Council no longer has any authority over the project's zoning.
“We have 175 signatures on our manifesto,” Falvey said, referring to a citizen petition that opposes the PUD process. The manifesto also calls for more public information on virtually all aspects of the development.
“There is such a lack of detail about this project,” said Falvey. adding that artist renderings of the high-density urban village are not enough. Falvey and those who have signed the petition favor holding the town's zoning to the one-acre-per-dwelling model that Londonderry has used for decades.
“The reason for the manifesto is that the Planning Board is not actively engaged in defending the town's rights,” said Falvey. “You shouldn't rezone based on little pastels and watercolors.”
The developer's frustration
Pillsbury Realty Development is headed by Michael Kettenbach — who also leads the real estate acquisition and development arm of the Market Basket Grocery store chain and is vice president of Retail, Management and Development Inc, in Tewksbury
The developer submitted a PUD application for Woodmont Commons on Oct 14. Last December, the Planning Board met to review a request for bids for an outside consultant to help them review that application.
At that meeting, Kettenbach unleashed some of his frustration over the slow pace of the PUD process.
“I am concerned that we are looking at the draft of an RFP when we have, before the board, an application for acceptance of a planned-unit development that, statutorily, should have been acted on 30 days ago,” Kettenbach said. “I am confused by the manner in which we've been put off for another 60 days, with no end in sight.”
Kettenbach said he had no problems with an independent review, and even offered to pick up the tab. But he made it clear that he had been expecting the Planning Board to accept his “statutory application.” Once a PUD application is accepted, the members have 65 days to make a final decision on the project.
“We've already spent two years showing our patience,” he told the board. “Statutorily, we believe we are properly before you” Kettenbach said.
However, the Planning Board insisted on a third-party review before accepting the application.
Problems with plan
In March, Howard/Stein-Hudson Associates released a preliminary report that described the developer's application as “incomplete,” “poorly organized” and “difficult to interpret in several areas.” They listed a wide range of issues and concerns starting with basic questions about who owns the land.
The application lists Pillsbury Realty Development, HYRAX Derry Partners, LLC, Demoulas Super Markets and Robert D. and Stephen R. Lievens as the owners of the Woodmont Commons PUD, but it's not clear who owns the parcels slated for the development. It's also unclear how the owners are related to Pillsbury Realty, the lead developer of the project.
Garron said the ownership of specific parcels of land was not clear to the review team, but it may be a matter of simply producing a piece of paper.
Other issues were more complicated. According to the review team, the developer's application says Woodmont Commons will be exempt from existing regulations including zoning, subdivision, site plan regulations and from impact fees, one-time fees paid by developers to offset the added pressure that new homes place on town services such as schools and the town's fire department.
The review team found that provision “entirely unacceptable” and said it should be stricken from the application. The consultants stressed the need for a comprehensive regulatory framework and a detailed list of proposed alterations, modifications and waivers from current land use regulations.
Howard/Stein-Hudson's review also noted the plan's lack of street designs, and designated land uses. The consultants also said Pillsbury Realty needs to provide more information on Woodmont Commons' potential impact on town infrastructure.
Zoning Board Vice Chairwoman Mary Wing Soares said Woodmont Commons has been hampered by different interpretations of the PUD ordinance.
“The PUD application is a master plan that gives us a general idea of what Mr. Kettenbach wants to do,” she said adding that the details come later, after the application is accepted. “It allows for flexibility. I think people got confused by that.”
But opponents of the plan say the PUD process, which puts control of a huge piece of Londonderry in the hands of the developer, and limits the ability of town officials to intercede, is exactly what they are worried about.
That, and other things. Londonderry resident Steve Homsey recalls that Woodmont Commons was initially described as “revenue-positive” and now it's now being called “revenue-neutral” but he expects it to go “revenue-negative” any day. Like others, he wonders how much taxpayers may have to spend to support the project.
Homsey said with all the cuts being made at the state level, a tax hike is almost inevitable.
“There's no way it will be tax-neutral with all the infrastructure in the plan like the fire substation and the roads,” he said. “The town will float bonds for that stuff.”
Glen Douglas, who has also been a Woodmont watchdog, said he worries about residents who live on the perimeter of the proposed development. Douglas said people who, years ago, built homes overlooking an apple orchard may find themselves with a new view of a row of townhouses or the back of a strip mall.
“I don't believe this project will be a benefit to the town,” he said. “I don't believe it will be a benefit to anyone other than the developer.”