Ossipee — January 26, 2006 — Harry Merrow, a selectman and state legislator who owns hundreds of acres in town, is planning to sell off about 28 acres on Route 16 to a major New England mall builder.
Merrow is one of a number of landowners who together have placed a combined 92 acres on routes 16 and 28 under agreement with the Connecticut-based Konover Group. Konover does business with some of the biggest-name retailers in the country, and Merrow and others are lobbying local officials and voters to change zoning laws they fear could block the company from bringing a two-building shopping plaza to Ossipee.
Konover’s Web site is marketing a 350,000-square-foot “Power Center” for the land, including Merrow’s, which lies on the southbound side of Route 16, just north of Elm Street, across from a seafood restaurant that sprouts its conspicuous replica lighthouse.
The company’s media relations department returned a telephone call Tuesday, but was unable to provide comment from a project coordinator. Spokesperson Lori Murphy said Wednesday afternoon, “We are getting to know Ossipee and learning about the community’s needs. And we look forward to meeting with the community that we hope we will become an important part of, if at all.”
She declined to discuss project specifics, but said the company will dispatch a representative to a Jan. 31 planning board meeting.
Ossipee code enforcement officer Dave Senecal said Konover had yet to announce to the town any lease agreements with any of its usual clientele. The list, posted on the company’s Web site, reads like a who’s who of national chain supermarkets, restaurants, drug stores and big-box stores, including Wal-Mart, Target, Lowe’s, Shaw’s, Shop and Save, Barnes and Noble and Chili’s.
He said current plans are for two large buildings near the intersection of routes 16 and 28. But the town’s zoning laws threaten to thwart the sale, and the company reportedly told local officials the deal will fall through unless voters pass the amendment petitioned by Merrow and other landowners.
The targeted 92 acres represent the only area large enough in the town’s business district to accommodate the size of plaza that officials expect will bring in 150 jobs and $150,000 in tax relief. If voters reject the zoning change, the project and the jobs won’t come, Senecal said.
“If they can’t get the zoning change, they will just leave,” he said. “They will go to some other town.”
Opponents, however, say the large-scale development that Konaver could introduce, defies zoning enacted to corral new business into areas where similar development already exists. New zoning was set up in 2000 and 2001 to prevent the emergence of a shopping “strip” along the major Route 16 tourism and commercial corridor, they say. Some fear a strip, like North Conway’s, would be ruinous for the town’s traditional rural character.
“This essentially defeats the purpose of the concentrated commercial node by opening up possibilities for many more points of entry/egress on Routes 16 and and 28,” resident Elizabeth Gillette wrote in a letter to the planning board.
Gillette urged planners not to endorse the zoning change, writing in her letter, “Piecemeal commercial node rezoning by citizen petition puts the cart before the horse, limits planning board effectiveness to influence impact of the total development, and even undermines the intent of the community zoning process itself.”
Some planning officials have said rows of giant retail halls like those stretching south out of North Conway Village on Route 16 are not the right fit for Ossipee, which they said would better be built up by small business.
Part of Merrow’s 28 acres is zoned for what is called “roadside commercial.” Merrow has requested to have it changed to “nodal,” which also allows commercial use, but imposes fewer restrictions that are unwanted by the company. Roadside commercial zoning limits car trips in and out of the property to 1,000 a day, and forces builders to build farther off the road, Senecal said.
“They don’t want these things,” he said. “They will just pick up and go to another town.” The target area is already surrounded by some businesses, including custom modular home builder, Handyman New England, he said.
“It’s not like it’s putting in commercial in a housing development,” Merrow said. “It’s commercial.”
He added, “This is the best use of the land, the best use for everybody.”
Senecal said of all the lands involved, only Merrow’s needs rezoning. The proposed change would go before voters on the ballot in March. The planning board will continue its review of the petition at a Tuesday, Jan. 31 work session, and the board has scheduled a public hearing for Feb. 7 at Town Hall.
Senecal said the company may bring more detailed plans to the January meeting. Merrow said Konover has had an option on his land for a year. He would not disclose a sale price. The stores would go up near an existing shopping plaza shared by Hannaford’s and Ocean State Job Lot on the south end of the intersection of routes 16 and 28.