Apples and asphalt: As Londonderry grows, officials look to balance economic development with land conservation

Union Leader Correspondent
November 17. 2017 12:57AM
Work continues on the Woodmont Commons project in Londonderry, which provides a significant economic springboard for the town but eliminates an estimated 1,100 fruit-bearing apple trees in the process. (COURTESY)

LONDONDERRY — With the early stages of construction underway at Woodmont Commons — an ambitious mixed-use development on 600 acres along I-93 — the debate between promoting economic development and preserving the town’s rural farming heritage has rekindled.

Over the next 20 years, developers hope to build 1,300 residences, a million square feet of commercial and retail space, a brew-pub and hotel. 

But the plan has its detractors. Some doubt the appeal to young families, saying millennials would prefer the apple orchards that once covered the site to a cluttered suburbia.

“It all looked good on paper to those approving the plans, but it looks a little different on the ground as the first of those 10,000 trees are beginning to pile up,” said Jack Falvey, a Londonderry resident and 25-year veteran of the town’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority. 

In recent days, construction crews have revved up activity at the site behind the Market Basket plaza, with crews working on the connector road from the existing HomeGoods and T.J. Maxx locations to Pillsbury Road.

“That is a lot of construction,” said Marcy Browne of Manchester, who was shopping at T.J. Maxx last week.

“It should be nice once it is finished, but right now it just looks like a giant sandbox,” she said. “If we don’t watch out, we’re going to overdevelop this state and lose part of what makes New Hampshire special.”

Phase I: 2020 completion

The first phase started this summer. Some of the larger infrastructure sub-projects begin in 2018, including an assisted-living complex.

Pillsbury Realty Development LLC said portions of the site will be maintained as “agricultural land and open space.” Community gardens and walking trails are in the blueprints.

Ari Pollack, legal counsel for Pillsbury, said the master plan has open space and other environmentally-friendly elements.

“I think during the master planning process there were a lot of voices, there were a lot of concerns; and I think they were ultimately synthesized by the planning board into what is today called the master plan for the development,” he said. And I think (that plan) strikes a balance that at least most of the voices involved felt was responsible.”

Set on about 62 acres near the Market Basket plaza, the first phase is scheduled for a 2020 completion and anticipated to bring 650 new jobs, 260 residential units, 164,000 square feet of retail and 108,000 square feet of office space, according to developers.

Falvey, an adjunct professor of sales management at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said there is too much density at the site.

“There’s still 800 acres of industrial land at the airport that could support the town for another 50 years. And as far as residential is concerned, the trend in cities now for the millennials is to get out of the city and go to the suburbs to have children — this was Londonderry’s strong point for 40 years,” he said.

Falvey said young families do not want a condominium in a massive complex, but an acre of land and a place for the “dog and the kids.”

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Workers grade the shoulder of the new road connecting Pillsbury and Nashua roads at Woodmont Commons in Londonderry. The 600-acre development provides a significant economic springboard for the town but eliminates an estimated 1,100 fruit-bearing apple trees in the process. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

A balancing act

“We do have a huge amount of development in the (Route) 102 corridor down by the airport,” said Town Manager Kevin Smith. “But we also have thousands of acres preserved in open space conservation, which is just an incredible balance that we have here in town.”

Smith said the zoning was changed to allow for the Woodmont development, but some of the open space has conservation easements.

“Mack’s Apples will never become an industrial (or) commercial development, it will always remain apple orchards,” Smith said. “Same thing with Sunnycrest Farm; Merrill Farm up in the northern area of town, same thing. Through zoning and land practices, the rural center of town will continue to remain rural for quite some time simply because of zoning that’s currently in place but also the steps the town has taken over the years to protect those areas.”

Mike Speltz of the Londonderry Conservation Commission said the town is in danger of losing its remaining open space within the next 15 years. He worries the properties that are not under a conservation easement will “turn into pavement and rooftops.”

Speltz said communities like Londonderry have to pay attention to the larger developments that come through their communities in order to maintain healthy economic growth without losing rural appeal.

“It is a balancing act, and we’ve tried to identify those areas in town that are most ripe for development and those areas that are most important to conserve,” he said.

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