Brickyard 'listening session' with UNH's 'NH Listens' set for Gonic School Sept. 22

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The Aug. 22 planning board meeting saw Economic Development Chief Mike Scala, right, faced insurmountable pushback on his apartment complex proposal from city residents. (Cliff Newton photos)

ROCHESTER - Rochester's mayor announced during last Tuesday's City Council meeting that he has scheduled a "Listening Session" on the Gonic Brickyard following residents recent pushback against a proposed 180-apartment complex there, but what he didn't say during the mayor's comments portion of the meeting was that NH Listens would be a partner in the presentation, which is scheduled for the Gonic School on Sept. 22.
The day after the meeting a press release from the city noted that "On September 6th, Mayor Paul Callaghan announced that the City of Rochester will be teaming up with NH Listens to host a discussion regarding the Gonic Brickyard."
The "teaming up" part, however, never was uttered at the Sept. 6 meeting, which readers can view by clicking here and then on the Mayor's Comments tab around the 31-minute mark.
"I was pleased to see the residents of Gonic that came out on August 22nd to discuss the possible zoning changes to the old Gonic Brickyard," said Callaghan at the Sept. 6 City Council meeting. "As a result of that energy shown by the residents, I've scheduled a community engagement session that will include both Councilors from Ward 3."
The Aug. 22 planning board meeting featured a full hour of Gonic residents ripping the rezoning idea, with nary a one in support of the three-building, 180 elderly and subsidized apartments.
Economic Development Director Mike Scala threw in the towel after Mark Sullivan, the city manager's board designee, said the effort was hopeless.
"Some projects are worth the fight and effort; this isn't one of them," said Sullivan, the city's deputy finance director. "I'll endorse it just so you don't get shut out 0-9, but the votes aren't here."
Sullivan said the lack of transparency and how those who came to the meeting knew more about the low-income housing proposal than planning board members didn't help the city's cause.
"We seemed to have dropped the ball before the pass is in the air," Sullivan told Scala. "I recommend you withdraw the request."
Both planning board chair Mark Collopy, who frequently gaveled down a feisty gallery; and David Walker also voiced their objections. Walker called the change to R2 from Industrial spot zoning.
"This looks like a building in search of a lot," he said. "Personally I don't like spot zoning, and this smells like spot zoning; I have no idea why you did this."
Even planning board members voiced concerns over the lack of transparency as Catholic Charities discussed its options and even sent surveyors out to get the lay of the land.
"We saw them on the street and asked what they were doing," said one resident clearly vexed by the city's audacity to be having conversations with entities that wanted to build apartments buildings in an Industrial zone.
"We, the residents of Gonic, had no interactions with the city, we didn't have a back and forth," said Mike Kirouac, a Pickering Road resident. "The process was not transparent, not sure where it started, but I know a part of it was a nonpublic council meeting with sealed minutes. These minutes need to be unsealed."
Scala said the project had been started as part of a statewide initiative looking to build workforce, age restricted and attainable housing.
Several abutters said they feared the subsidized housing would soon become section 8 and would lead to increased traffic, congestion and crime.
NH Listens is a division of the Carsey School of Public Policy and UNH. On its website it states its mission is "to bring people together to talk, listen, and act so communities can work for everyone."
Callaghan was not immediately available to explain how NH Listens became involved in the Gonic Brickyard.
According to the city's press release the "Desired Outcomes" are as follows.
A shared understanding of R2 and industrial zoning.
A shared understanding of the development process.
Gain community input on the specific property and potential vision for that property.
Learn other concerns/ideas the community has about zoning and housing.
The meeting will take place in the Cafeteria at Gonic Elementary School, on Sept. 22, from 7-9 p.m. Gonic Elementary is located at 10 Railroad Ave.

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