A young builder wants a new neighborhood in Pembroke 

  • Kenny Lehtonen II, who runs San-Ken Homes Inc., in New Ipswich, stands in a development of homes he built in Milford on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Kenny Lehtonen II, who runs San-Ken Homes Inc. out of New Ipswich, stands on the porch of one of his homes he has built in a development of homes in Milford on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kenny Lehtonen II, who runs San-Ken Homes Inc. out of New Ipswich, stands in the development of homes he has built in Milford on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kenny Lehtonen II, who runs San-Ken Homes Inc., in New Ipswich, stands in a development of homes he built in Milford last week. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Kenny Lehtonen II, who runs San-Ken Homes Inc. out of New Ipswich, looks out of one of his homes he has built in a development of homes in Milford on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kenny Lehtonen II, who runs San-Ken Homes Inc. out of New Ipswich, stands in the development of homes he has built in Milford on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Published: 7/7/2019 5:23:52 PM

The fresh-faced developer knows what people say about him.

He’s just 34. He looks younger. Can he really be trusted to build homes in a responsible fashion, maintaining the integrity of land known for its combination of peace and recreation?

“I get that a lot,” said Kenny Lehtonen II, the developer who wants to give Pembroke a facelift. “Then people start talking to me and they realize I’ve been at this for a long time. It doesn’t take long for them to figure that out.”

Perhaps. But all the maturity and business savvy in the world probably won’t change the minds of the people who live near or on Fourth Range and Flagg Robinson Roads – two streets at the epicenter of a long-running issue.

Lehtonen, who runs San-Ken Homes Inc., out of New Ipswich, has met these people, at meetings hosted by boards and town officials since his company bought the land two years ago at public auction. While residents not affected by the plan to build 47 homes have said little during the process, those living in that area have had plenty to say.

They’re resisting the plan, which includes reclassifying the aforementioned roads from Class VI to V. That would change the responsibility of maintaining these narrow, rural stretches from the private sector to the town, which would expand and pave and provide the routes needed to move in and out of a newly-developed neighborhood.

Residents worry about increased traffic and the safety of children, especially since the local grade-school is absorbing students from another school, which closed this summer. They worry about contaminated or dried-up wells, about wetlands, about run-off, about access to land now used for hiking and horseback riding.

And they worry about other builders moving in later.

“I am concerned,” said Ammy Heiser, the chairwoman of the town’s Conservation Committee. “It’s just a matter of time before other developers come to this town and want to open up range roads to development. This is a particularly scenic area, and we’re trying to preserve this scenic part of town.”

Ayn Whytemare is the secretary for the Conservation Committee and president of the Pembroke Historical Society. She was blunt about her feelings, telling me she doesn’t trust Lehtonen.

She says Lehtonen was vague when asked if his proposed neighborhood could be formed into a cluster, which would group the houses in a way that would leave some land untouched.

She also said Lehtonen had claimed that the Conservation Committee approved his plan, while in reality, Whytemare said, “We acknowledged it reduces the wetland impact, but we had not given (the plan) a thumbs up.”

And then there’s that age thing, leading to a skeptical first impression. Fair or not, Whytemare immediately worried about Lehtonen’s wisdom and attitude.

“I was frankly surprised by his baggy pants,” Whytemare told me. “I know it’s a millennial thing, but when you’re trying to get a multi-million dollar deal through, I was shocked. It made him seem younger than he was.”

Youth has always been part of the formula when it comes to Lehtonen and his career. His father, Ken Lehtonen, started San-Ken Homes Inc. 35 years ago. The younger Lehtonen grew up on job sites.

By 16, he was doing the scheduling and overseeing the sub-contractors. By 18 he’d built and sold his first house. Currently the vice president, Lehtonen is in charge, now that his father is semi-retired at 68.

He welcomed me to Milford, where an entire neighborhood built by his company stands, its lawns neatly manicured, its paint fresh, its buyers mostly young couples with young children.

He was anxious for me to see a nearly-finished house, with its granite kitchen countertops, white cabinets, backyard deck and smell of fresh paint.

He wanted to show me the quality of his product, to explain to me why the 47 homes he wants to build amid the trees and hiking trails in a special section of Pembroke will work.

He says people sometimes don’t have enough information to make an educated decision.

“People who are not experts tend to probably blow things out of proportion from reality, like extreme amounts of traffic,” he said. “This development here is larger than the one I’m proposing in Pembroke, and I’ve had conversations on this road for 10 minutes and not have a single car come by.”

He also factored in basic human behavior and reactions. While some in Pembroke looked at Lehtonen and saw inexperience and attitude, he looked at the townspeople and saw a community set in its ways.

“They have seen it the way it is for the last 200 years,” Lehtonen said. “Any kind of change, people tend to resist. Even if I was going to put in a chicken or pig farm, there would probably be opposition to that because change will be happening to the land.”

The select board will ultimately decide if the classification of the two roads can change, part of a process that began two years ago when Lehtenon and his family bought a 111-acre farm and 66 acres that abutted the property.

He says the planning and select boards, “had a very welcoming response. Once we felt like we had a plan everyone from all the different departments were happy with, we submitted a formal application.”

That was late last year. Tax revenue on 47 new homes is a selling point Lehtonen believes should be highlighted more. That and the success he’s had in developing other areas.

Those towns, however, don’t have the roots Pembroke does, the history, the loyalty built over decades, Whytemare said. Residents can listen to both sides at a planning board meeting July 11 and a select board meeting on the 15th.

“He came in here when real estate value is high and they assumed they could get this done,” Whytemare said. “But other places don’t have people who have lived there for generations. They don’t have a soul. We still have a soul.”

That’s an old soul, Whytemare and others said. The fresh- faced builder, they say, should remember that.




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