Mark Hayward's City Matters: It's developer vs. landowners on Manchester's Hobart Street
IF YOU are looking for signs of the health in the Manchester real estate market, Hobart Street might be as good as any place to start.
Whenever the market picks up, whenever real estate developers feel they can turn a dime, they eye Hobart Street.
Hobart Street is a small, block-long residential street that runs off Hanover Street. It dead ends into one of the largest swamps (environmentalists call them wetlands) in the area. And it borders a 5-acre forest of tall pines sandwiched between Hobart Street homes and the Villa Crest nursing home.
Twice in the past decade, developers have eyed that forest for homes. They did so in 2004, just as Bush-era tax cuts started being felt, and they returned in 2007, right before the debacle caused by mortgage-backed securities.
Both times, city regulators rejected plans.
The third time proved to be the charm. With a slimmed down plan, Auburn developer Elmer Pease gained approvals from Manchester for nine homes expected to sell for $229,900 to $259,900.
The approvals have left a neighborhood frustrated, but a developer insistent he did everything right.
"We feel like we're a victim here of big money interest. We have no say," said Don Boucher, whose backyard borders the development area. "I strongly feel they (the city) won't give us the time of day. It's all about the builders."
Blasting will release radon that will seep into their foundations, he said. Trees that help filter fumes from the nearby Kalwall factory will be lost. Water will run off homes into wetlands, both on and off the property.
And what the neighbors say is their biggest concern — the land was supposed to be a buffer between their homes and Villa Crest.
Pease said he has done everything he can to make the neighbors happy, short of going away. His design for two culs-de-sac means blasting will take place for only three days. The deepest blast will be for a 5-foot trench, he said, although he didn't rule out the need to blast a granite pod to complete a foundation.
Most runoff will end up in a detention pond, where it will eventually seep it into a large, 20-acre wetland off the property.
Pease has said he will guarantee a no-cut buffer around neighboring properties. He dismisses the idea that the land was promised as a buffer for Villa Crest. No property or city records make mention of the buffer, he said.
"They keep bringing up that history," Pease said. "Two owners later, we don't have a clue of what they're talking about."
Neighbors say they don't have anything to prove that's the case. Bill Ready, who also lives on Hobart Street, said nine years ago he saw a letter attesting to the buffer in city files.
But when he returned the next day to copy the letter, it was gone, he said.
To be sure, this is not an ideal piece of property for homes. Granite ledge pops out in one area. Portions of the backside have a 10-foot embankment leading up to Villa Crest. And the road to the homes will have a steep pitch.
One corner has a small wetland (some mosquitoes). Just north of the property are acres of cattails and wetlands (even more mosquitoes). Hobart Street is only 20-feet wide in some places. And the driveway around Villa Crest has become a makeshift parking lot.
So why build? Pease said it's rare to find a 5-acre lot with access to water and sewer lines in Manchester. Such a lot in Hooksett or Auburn would probably support only two houses, he said.
"As I said many times on the board, we're a city. We're not Deerfield or Candia," said Kevin McCue, a planning board member who was chairman in 2007 when an earlier plan was rejected.
McCue said he was wary of Pease because of the pace of his work at Ledgewood, a nearby hillside development for people 55 years or older. But he said Pease's nine homes compares to the 12 homes developers wanted to build earlier, and Pease has addressed all the issues raised by neighbors.
"The abutters, they've had a nice little forest area for themselves," he said.
Meanwhile, Ready said neighbors will speak to a lawyer to determine their next move. He said they could stop the whole project by parking trucks on both sides of the narrow street, preventing heavy equipment from reaching the site.
Pease said he's not sure when the project will start. The lots will have to be sold; no one builds nine houses without a buyer nowadays.
"The market plays a big role," he said. "We hope to have a builder in place to start this fall."
Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.