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Concord considers zoning category for retirement communities

The Concord Planning Board is considering adding a category for retirement communities to the city’s zoning ordinance – a change the city planner says could bring future development.

The zoning change isn’t driven by a development project, but “it’s not a bad use to encourage,” said City Planner Gloria McPherson. Continuing care retirement communities allow seniors to progress from independent living units into assisted living and nursing home facilities, and are licensed by the New Hampshire Insurance Department. Havenwood-Heritage Heights, with two campuses off East Side Drive, is currently Concord’s only continuing care retirement community.

If approved by the planning board and city council, the zoning change would allow retirement communities in the city’s residential and institutional districts.

Planning board members have voiced concerns about the zoning at recent meetings, saying that nursing homes could bring noise and disruption to residential neighborhoods.

“What makes it different is the fact the nursing home piece is the 24-hour operation, which is significant when you live in a residential area where people go to bed at night and there isn’t shift changes and things like that,” planning board member Susanne Smith Meyer said at a meeting last week. “I think that was the concern if it’s in a very heavily populated residential area.”

A facility used only as a nursing home would not fit the proposed zoning category. Continuing care retirement communities, under Concord’s proposed zoning, would include independent living in addition to nursing home or assisted living buildings. Other development permitted within the retirement community could include dining facilities and community centers.

Planning board members agreed last week that retirement communities must be built on lots of at least 25 acres. At least 35 percent of the land must be used for outdoor recreational activities, according to a current draft of the zoning changes.

There are at least 10 properties in Concord that are larger than 25 acres and have the required water, sewer and road access, according to an example list compiled by the city’s planning department.

Some planning board members suggested increasing the minimum acreage to higher than 25 acres because it would provide a buffer between a nursing home and residential neighborhoods. But Assistant City Planner Steve Henninger told the board that increasing the lot size may negate the purpose of changing zoning requirements.

“If we do this and create this use, we want to see it used,” Henninger said. “We’re not in here for a paperwork exercise. . . . If we make the lot sizes too large, it’s going to become largely infeasible.”

The planning board first considered the proposal at a December meeting, but planning board members had questions and asked McPherson to return with more details. They discussed the zoning changes again at last week’s meeting, but did not finalize or approve the proposal.

“I think we should go slow and make sure it’s right and not feel that we’re under any pressure to do it quicker,” said Steve Shurtleff, a planning board member and city councilor.

McPherson said the zoning category was proposed because the planning department has had difficulty categorizing renovations or construction at Havenwood-Heritage Heights. The zoning ordinances don’t include an accurate fit for the retirement center’s use of its property, she said.

“So it’s been really difficult for them to be able to do a good job at upgrading their facilities,” McPherson said.

McPherson researched retirement communities in Hanover and Exeter, where there are corresponding zoning categories.

Most of the communities’ residents live in the independent living units, according to a chart presented to the planning board. At the Havenwood-Heritage Heights campuses, which total nearly 59 acres, 409 of the 600 residents live independently.

“You’re looking at very low numbers for the nursing home units,” said Senior Planner Becky Hebert.

Planning board member John Swope said he’s not concerned about too much noise or activity in retirement communities because seniors are generally quiet.

“I’ve experienced that they don’t really party all night,” Swope said.

A small group of residents attended last week’s planning board meeting, some because they had seen their neighborhood on a list of example properties presented to the planning board.

Ron Richter questioned whether the retirement center zoning should apply to single-family residential districts.

“We need these types of things, but do not allow this in a single-family residential area,” Richter said.

Current zoning in Concord does allow more than single family homes in single-family residential areas; group housing for the elderly is already permitted.

“Multi-family housing for the elderly, there can be like big apartment blocks with no requirements for anything,” McPherson told the planning board.

She said retirement communities are primarily residential, and the zoning ordinance can include guidelines and restrictions.

The planning board will next discuss retirement communities at its Feb. 20 meeting. If the board approves the zoning changes, the proposal will go before the city council.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

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