Senior Housing: Retirement community comes closer to approval in Portsmouth

By Geoff Cunningham Jr. for Fosters

PORTSMOUTH — A zoning ordinance change linked to a developer’s controversial proposal for a 400-plus unit retirement community took another step toward being approved on Monday with a City Council vote that followed lengthy debate.

A 6-3 vote by the panel approved a second reading of a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that would allow for a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) to be placed in an office/research zone provided such projects be approved by the Planning Board.

The proposed change to zoning ordinances pertaining to CCRC facilities is attached to a major proposal that has developers Michael Kane and Mark Stebbins proposing to build a 400-plus unit retirement community on an approximately 35-acre parcel of land located between Borthwick Avenue and Islington Street.

The project — known as “Borthwick Village” — calls for a large retirement facility that would accommodate some independent living units and others that would provide assisted living with skilled nursing care.

A recent effort that revamped the city’s zoning saw planners weighing changes that would allow the Planning Board oversight in approving CCRC facilities in office/research zones, but the proposed amendment was left out of the zoning overhaul so that it could be further scrutinized by city leaders.

The City Council has continued to weigh the proposed zoning change and on Monday took it up during a public hearing attended by 25 residents providing input on an amendment some have described as a case of “spot zoning” that seeks to accommodate the Borthwick Village project that many residents oppose for numerous reasons.

Among those most ardently against the project was Islington Street resident Paul Mannle who addressed the City Council during the hearing also presenting them with a petition signed by 410 city residents who oppose the change.

Mannle said the proposed CCRC change contradicts the city’s master plan by introducing a zoning amendment he believes has little or no benefit for the public.

More than 10 individuals took to the microphone expressing opposition to the zoning change and project.

Some expressed concern about how the project would impact traffic on Islington Street while others had concerns it would end up costing the city money as a result of increased burden on the fire department from emergency calls.

One issue brought up repeatedly was the amount of revenue a CCRC facility would generate for the city compared to if the land was used to house a large-scale office building.

While some residents argued it would provide senior housing that would help older residents remain in Portsmouth, others said the estimated price of the units are out of reach for most and called into question whether the skilled nursing care part of the proposal would become a reality.

One resident took issue that the developer’s attorney was the first to run up to the microphone and speak.

Stebbins — one of the developers — said he has a long record of producing solid projects in the city he calls home.

“We are not here to be big bad developers,” Stebbins said.

Members of the Council debated the second reading of the zoning change at length with some supporting it and others expressing concerns that it wasn’t in the best interest of the city as a whole.

City Councilor Bob Lister voted against it saying he wanted to take care of the existing neighborhoods and city residents rather than look out for the best interest of those who might move to the new facility.

Mayor Tom Ferrini supported the CCRC proposal calling it reasonable for those elderly wanting to live in such a facility.

“I think it is a large-market segment of Portsmouth we don’t serve,” Ferrini said.

More than one member of the City Council noted any concerns about such projects would still need to pass muster with the Planning Board for them to be approved on a case-by-case basis even if the change is approved.

Members of the panel discussed possibly asking the city planning staff to investigate adding a provision to the zoning change that would require CCRC proposals to include a minimum amount of skilled nursing beds, but ditched that idea when some said the issue had been labored over for years and needed to be voted on.

The Council ultimately voted 6-3 to pass the proposed change on to a third and final reading, which is expected to take place next month.

[fosters.com]

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