Opponents hope to force a referendum vote
CUMBERLAND — Despite a room full of opposition, the Town Council Monday approved contract zoning for a credit union on Main Street.
Opponents said they would file a petition seeking a referendum to overturn the decision.
After several months of public process, including a neighborhood meeting, Planning Board review and meetings with individual abutters, The Long Group – a N.H.-based developer – and Atlantic Regional Federal Credit Union faced a packed public hearing Monday for their proposal to open a branch at the former Chase Flower Shop at the intersection of Main Street and Farwell Avenue.
Citizens and neighbors overflowed the chamber’s 50 seats, and more than a dozen people spoke against the contract zone.
They focused primarily on three issues: that business should not be allowed in the residentially zoned Main Street neighborhood, the idea that contract zoning is poor public policy, and the proximity of the nearby Doane property, which was recently rezoned to encourage mixed-use development consisent with a village center.
Many neighbors, including Carolyn Currie of Main Street, said the property in question was simply the wrong place for a financial institution – or any business.
“I’m nervous that this represents a push of development on Main Street,” Currie said, summarizing many other neighbors’ fears that the credit union’s approval would start a slippery slope of development on the residential road.
While there are many grandfathered businesses on the street – including Food Stop, a Shell gas station and a handful of small offices – and despite the fact that the proposed location was formerly a commercial use, most neighbors said they’d prefer to see their neighborhood remain one of the last residential Main Streets in the state.
“We walk here, we talk here, we walk our dogs here, you don’t need to develop Main Street,” Andrew Baca, the southern abutter of the future credit union, said.
Hemlock Drive resident Bill Dexter defended a similar viewpoint. “Sometimes the ‘not in my backyard’ (view) is not a pejorative, its a good reason not to do things,” he said.
In addition to fearing for their neighborhood, a handful of residents spoke out against the use of contract zoning in general. “When is enough enough?” said Main Street resident Martha Porch, frustrated that this was the third contract zone request in her neighborhood in the last few years.
“In essence, you’re rezoning Main Street through contract zoning,” she said. “When do we stop?”
Others, including Bill Follett of Main Street, added that using contract zones when requested rather than developing a comprehensive, long-term plan for the area is poor public policy.
“It’s a great proposal, it looks good” Follett said, congratulating The Long Group for its work addressing neighbor’s concerns and offering numerous municipal benefits. “But that doesn’t mean it fits with the area or any long term plan.”
A handful of residents said the recent rezoning of the Doane property, located between Drowne Road and lower Main Street, was the better location for the credit union, because the zone outlines a long-term vision that includes commercial development. That property, however, is not yet for sale and isn’t expected to see development until the economy turns around, according to Town Manager Bill Shane.
The handful of people who spoke in favor of the proposal, including Cumberland Common resident David Ezzio, argued that proposed safety improvements along Main Street and Farwell Avenue and rebuilding the dilapidated Chase Flower Shop are a “huge improvement over what we have now.”
Property improvements outlined in the contract zone include sidewalks on Main Street and both sides of Farwell Avenue, dedicated parallel parking spaces on Farwell Avenue, an increased turning radius onto and an alternative exit off of Farwell Avenue, moving a Main Street crosswalk to a safer location, providing several green spaces, and creating a building more consistent with local architecture.
Ezzio also said he wants to see the town be more supportive of business development in general, since it enhances local services and brings in tax revenue (the credit union is expected to bring up to $30,000 in taxes each year). “I don’t think the businesses (on Main Street) now could get approval to open” today if they had to get permission from their neighbors, he said, despite everyone’s current appreciation for those businesses and their owners.
After nearly three hours of public comment, councilors took up a short discussion. Opinion ranged from Councilor Jeff Porter’s position that, after all, “it is Main Street, and allowing limited business isn’t going to ruin that road,” to Councilor Michael Perfetti’s opposition to the use of a contract zone and the precedent it creates for future councils and Main Street.
“I am confident, if not certain, that we will have more requests” for contract zones on Main Street,” Perfetti said. “I’m not certain what we will or wont allow. Public policy should be predictable for current and potential landlords.”
Perfetti several months ago tried to create a committee to look at creating a formal vision for the town center. His proposal was tabled in December and has not been taken up again.
Councilors voted 6-1 to approve the credit union’s contract zone. Perfetti was opposed; Councilor Stephen Moriarty abstained from discussion and voting because of a conflict of interest.
The credit union must now go before the Planning Board for site plan review.
Following the vote, resident Nuzzi said he and a citizen group called Save Cumberland’s Main Street will circulate a petition against the decision, which could lead to a referendum to overturn the vote. In order to mandate a public vote, the group must gather signatures from 10 percent of the town’s registered voters. As of Tuesday, 585 signatures are required.
In other business, Shane announced Monday that bids on Range Road reconstruction came in at less than half of what was initially estimated.
Engineers put the cost of the first phase of the project – from Route 100 to Idlewood Drive – at around $4 million. Bids ranged from a high of $2.9 million to A.H. Grover’s low of $1.7 million.
Given the unexpectedly low figure, which Shane said is a sign of these fiscal times, the council will attempt to negotiate with Grover to do the entire length of Range Road, which was originally proposed as a two-phase project worth more than $7 million.
Range Road reconstruction will be paid for through TIF funds, and is not expected to impact taxpayers.