Concord Ortho rezoning objectors: Case is profit vs. people

Monitor staff
Monday, July 24, 2017

The attorney for Concord Orthopaedics acknowledged the objections of the crowd, which stood around the edges of the room behind him, restless after waiting through more than an hour of unrelated issues.

They were there at the planning board to listen and speak on the proposal to rezone a residential neighborhood on Pleasant Street to allow for the city’s expanding medical community – and, in particular, Concord Ortho’s envisioned 20,000-square-foot surgery center amid a row of houses.

Bob Carey, the attorney seeking the board’s blessing on one or both of the rezoning plans, observed: “This, as you may know, has not been the most popular proposal that the city has seen.”

The rezoning, according to the people who live there, would eventually spell the end of the last rural gateway into Concord and, more importantly to them, the character of their homes. So they lined the roadside with handmade signs and choreographed a PowerPoint presentation for the planning board.

Nevertheless, Concord Ortho has argued that the rezoning is necessary if the city wants to support the medical community. The company says it has found nowhere better to build an expansion near the city’s medical hub than the third-of-a-mile residential zone sandwiched between the Concord Hospital campus and St. Paul’s School.

It bought the residential parcel at 297 Pleasant St. last year as its “sixth or seventh choice” following a four-year search, Carey said.

But the rare request to rezone an entire district – or, as has been alternatively proposed, to rezone three parcels for the benefit of the one on the outskirts, over the objection of the other two – has been met with a furious response.

It was after 2½ hours of back-and-forth Wednesday night and six months of anticipation that 11 p.m. approached and the planning board members decided to continue the hearing into next month. Another back-and-forth will ensue then, beginning with Carey’s rebuttal. The rezoning proposal was first delivered in January.

Paul Hodes, a former Democratic congressman who lives adjacent to the district, had the last word Wednesday. He told the board that Carey’s observation about the proposal’s unpopularity was an understatement.

“In fact, I bet that in all your tenure on the planning board you have never seen a proposal that’s generated so much universal condemnation and opposition, not just from the immediately affected neighbors but from the entire community,” Hodes said.

Dozens of residents from around the city have sent letters opposing the proposal, according to copies of the letters posted online.

Hodes continued by saying that the planning board is charged with maintaining the city’s master plan, which envisions the neighborhood as residential. He said he suspects that’s why there’s been such a strong response.

“People are affronted by what they see as a breach of protocol in the proper process for dealing with these large issues the master plan deals with,” he said, noting that he expects Concord Ortho will be able to find another suitable location within the city.

Hodes implored the board: “You hold the heart and soul not just of the lives of these people, of their kids and their way of life. You hold the heart and soul of this community. You’re going to define the character of Concord, how it treats people, and how it deals with this balance of profit and people.”

The former congressman’s testimony punctuated the points laid out by the residents of Pleasant Street, who said their homes shouldn’t be upended for the benefit of one company.

Jim Bailey, who lives next door to the proposed surgery center, said almost all the property owners in the area oppose the rezoning, and eight of the 13 wouldn’t conform to the standards of an institutional zone if they were converted. Therefore, even if the owners decided to sell, their lots would be difficult to develop “without significant lot consolidation,” he said.

“The way this issue was presented in their application, this was about benefiting the city with the opportunity for expansion for the medical community,” Bailey said, “and I don’t believe that five compliant properties ... will solve the medical expansion problem.”

Still others said that the neighborhood’s proximity to institutional zones is evidence that it’s successful as is. Don Kreis, who moved to Pleasant Street as a renter after being picked as the consumer advocate of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, said that he never fails to think that he’s found “a bit of paradise” when he utilizes the services nearby his home and walks to work.

“Our neighborhood was kept a neighborhood for a reason,” he said. “That reason being that it’s good for people to live in close proximity to the institutions that serve them.”

Kreis said it’s reasonable to question whether Langley Parkway North will ever be built, and that the medical community is important.

“But rules mean nothing if we toss them out when it seems convenient to do so,” he said. “A decision to rezone their neighborhood just because a powerful economic interest wants it – that will prove that zoning in this city is really just a bunch of suggestions that will be ignored on a whim.”

He added: “What a grievous blow that would be to the social compact that holds this city together.”

The meeting will continue Aug. 16. The city council will ultimately decide whether to approve the zoning, after the planning board gives its recommendation.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)