The Voice of the Public is Heard! Sierrans Lead Opposition to Hackett Hill Development

(Note: For all the talk about zero development, it is safe to say that every single Sierra Club member in attendance at this meeting -- and driving the agenda -- lives in a structure made of wood, a structure that is defined as 'development.' What's 'good for the goose' is not 'good for the gander?' There are some large contradictions here, the old 'Do as I say, not do as I do' line being almost visible between the lines.)

By Pat Mattson

pmattson@env.mv.com

From the Winter 2001 edition of the New Hampshire Chapter of the Sierra Club

On November 20, 2000, at a public meeting in Manchester's City Hall, an astonished Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA) heard strong opposition to their plans to develop part of the Hackett Hill (HH) property -- 800+ contiguous acres of forested wetlands and uplands in the northwest corner of the city. While many of the "zero development" speakers were members of the Sierra Club's Merrimack Valley Group (MVG), the general public was also well represented. A number of the speakers were from outside the Manchester area, indicating there is regional, as well as local interest in HH preservation. The morning after the meeting, the Manchester Union Leader's article on the proceedings was headlined "Hackett Hill Plan Hit Hard By Foes."

The plan to develop much of the HH forestland was first announced in the fall of 1998. The City's purchase of this UNH-owned property, part of which contained the HH campus of UNH-Manchester, occurred in March 1999. Subsequently, little information about the progress of the development scheme was released, but a MVG-organized Save Hackett Hill (SHH) campaign sought to make the public aware of the City's intentions. An elaborate consultant-prepared Master Plan for the development finally surfaced at a Sept. 5, 2000 BMA meeting. The City appeared ready to go "full steam ahead" with the project, but the MVG called for a public meeting to discuss the issue's pros and cons.

The MVG requested that the Nov. 20 HH meeting be forum-like in nature, with both sides giving presentations and responding to criticisms and questions. This request was denied. Instead, presentations for the opposing viewpoints were dispersed throughout the session and speakers were given a two minute time limit. The BMA added insult to injury by making one exception to their rule. They arranged for the Master Plan consultants to begin the meeting with another detailed description of their report.

The master planners reviewed the manner in which roads and building complexes would be arranged on the HH property. They also re-explained the City's intention to donate 273 acres of the property to The Nature Conservancy for a "Preserve." (This arrangement is part of an EPA Compliance Order and compensates for leniency in a required upgrade of Manchester's CSO -- combined sewer overflow -- system.) The Preserve primarily encompasses the Atlantic white cedar and black gum swamps for which the Hackett Hill property is best known.

The speakers for "zero development" of the property presented various viewpoints. Aline Lotter, NH Sierra Club Chair and a Manchester resident, spoke against the isolated preservation of the swamp area, noting that "an ecological system dies when it becomes fragmented." Aline's granddaughter, Tabitha Taby, stated that HH should be left for future generations to enjoy. Dorothy Courser presented an outlook in keeping with the Sierra Club's anti-sprawl campaign. She observed that locating office buildings at the city's outskirts would work against efforts to rebuild Manchester's downtown. The MVG's proposal for use of the HH property was described by Pat Mattson, MVG Chair for the HH issue. The plan calls for high school level ecology classes to be held in French Hall, the only UNH-Manchester building ever constructed on the property. Students would use the entire property for their field work.

Residents of Glenhaven, a small condo complex which abuts a corner of the HH forestland, are working with the MVG in opposing the City's development plans. At the public meeting, several of these abutters attacked the City's plan to locate a building slated for "light industry" directly adjacent to their homes. (Recent zoning changes have given the developable portion of the HH property a "Research Park" status, which allows for "mixed uses.") The condo owners and other residents of the area also expressed their opposition to development-associated traffic increases.

Both The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society of NH are supporting the City's development project. Nevertheless, the MVG's "zero development" policy received support from Kat Sutton, Clay Groves and Wendy Schorr -- staff members at the Amoskeag Fishways, an Audubon Regional Center located in Manchester. In addition, Tom Irwin, who represented The Conservation Law Foundation, announced that his organization favored the Sierra Club's approach. He also noted that strict guidelines must be met if the city decides to proceed with its development plans.

There were numerous other "zero development" speakers, but the only pro-development speakers were Patti Drelick, who represented the Manchester Chamber of Commerce; David Boutin, Chair of the City's Planning Board; Karol Lacroix, Dean of UNH-Manchester; Ken Rhodes, Vice President of CLD, a consulting engineering firm; and Ray Pinard, Chairman of the Board of the Manchester Development Corporation. All saw the plan as one that would benefit Manchester's economy. In opposition, Jeff Michelsen, a Manchester resident, pointed out that "the only financial rewards to be gained from the project would be received by the same tired old crowd, including development, financial, real estate, insurance, legal and architectural interests that is always lurking at ground zero when dubious development using taxpayer money is proposed. The crowd whose snout is always sniffing around the taxpayers' wallets."

Peter Flood, MVG and New Hampshire Sierra Club political chair, brandished a further attack on the monetary aspects of the City's plans. He provided substantial evidence to support Michelsen's viewpoint. He presented a critique of the City's "pro forma" which he based on information derived from the book, "Better Not Bigger," by Eben Fodor. Flood noted that not only will the City require 13 years before it can "break even" on its HH development project, but in Year 14 it will suffer a loss of over 4 million dollars, instead of a predicted profit of nearly 7 million dollars. His calculations were based largely on the cost of city services for the planned "corporate park" and for new residents who would be employed by the businesses located there. Jackie Flood, a real estate broker who is Secretary of the MVG, also reminded the City that another economic recession might be imminent.

At the close of the session, it was announced that the HH issue would be referred to the Lands and Buildings Committee, a five member aldermanic committee which will consider the issue and then report back to the full aldermanic board with a recommendation.

NH Sierra Club members can follow the progress of the HH saga by visiting Pat Mattson's personal Web site -- "The Manchester, NH Urban Open Space Web Site."

The URL for this Web site is http://www.mv.com/ipusers/env .

http://newhampshire.sierraclub.org/newsletters/chapter/index_winter2001_p2.html