Council sees some push-back on new apartment project

Three members of the public voices concerns over crime, density about new apartment project on South F Street

EXETER – Exeter residents’ slow to no growth philosophy was challenged when the planning commission allowed a 44-unit apartment project to pass site plan review. Before it got the official “OK” from the city council last week, three residents let their fears be known.

One woman, whose name was inaudible over the city council’s Zoom video recording, said what isn’t being considered is an potential increase in crime.

“Exeter is a small town and a great town. Having another low [income] housing apartment – this is number 26 by the way – so far just brings crime. There’s no other way to look at it. I am not racist, I’m just getting straight to the point,” the woman said.

The proposed complex on South F Street between Chestnut and Cedar streets is described as family apartments and will consist of 20 one-bedroom units, 18 two-bedroom units and 6 three-bedroom units. The units will be contained in three separate buildings, two will be two-story and one will be three-story, that all face F Street. Between the buildings will be an interior courtyard and around the buildings will be 90 off-street parking stalls – 15 stalls in a garage, 71 in uncovered stalls, and four handicapped accessible stalls. There will also be public parking on Chestnut, Cedar and F streets.

And only 4 of the units will qualify for moderate income housing assistance that caters to those making $45,000 per year and under, according to Exeter city planner Greg Collins.

During her comments, Exeter mayor, Mary Waterman-Philpot emphasized that this project is not affordable housing.

“I think we need to dispel the myth that it’s going to be affordable housing…they are going to be market rent,” she said.

Over the phone During the June 23 meeting developer Bill Morgan of West Coast Construction said that he plans to charge market rates of $1,100 to $1,500 depending on the size of the unit.

“But it really depends on what is right for Exeter and what those folks can, or are willing to take,” Morgan said.

As well, before unanimously voting to pass the project, councilman David Hail said that low income does not mean increased crime.

“I disagree that Exeter would lose its charm with more people. And just because someone has a lower income, does that mean that they are involved in crime? I don’t think so. I think that is a generalization that can be avoided,” Hail said.

Exeter city manager Adam Ennis said in an interview with The Sun-Gazette that the city has had no communication with affordable housing agencies on the project.

“There are no ties to any programs with the with city…the only thing I heard from the developer is market rates, and that isn’t a program,” Ennis said.

Arlene Dodge, the second Exeter resident to speak against the project said that Exeter isn’t in a place to provide adequate services to whoever will be moving into town.

“I’m concerned for a variety of reasons. First off, I think we have an obligation for those residents who are coming here. They deserve services. They deserve a place where they can have water, space and internet…I’m concerned they are not going to get the services they need,” Dodge said.

Hail, during his comments said that Exeter internet has improved over the years with the inclusion of Spectrum in the market. As well, there are several capital improvement projects slated to help the city’s water and sewer system since the city passed rate increases last year.

Rocky Hill Church pastor, David Welch struck a different tone than the speakers before him. He emphasized that growth in the city is required to keep businesses afloat, and pushed back against the crime narrative.

“If we have more opportunities for housing in our area, it really does increase foot traffic. It increases need within our restaurants and any of our sales opportunities in our downtown,” Welch said. “And I think that each person no matter what economic level they exist at they should have appropriate housing opportunities,” Welch said.

Designed for hearing

Karen Leland, who said that she lives on one and one-fifth of an acre in Exeter, also spoke at the city council meeting and said that she was disappointed by the density of the project and design.

“I can’t imagine having 44 properties on my lot…to me those look-like big boxes. And the slang term for those are McMansions. When you see those for individual homes, the architect is just lacking…You need to improve on those things tremendously,” Leland said.

The planning commission directed the developer to make several changes at their May 21 meeting, before it was presented to the city council. Collins said the commission’s vote included several conditions of approval, the most notable of which was a request for a new design. Collins said the commission requested that Morgan bring back designs that were more consistent with the “railroad architecture” (Mission or Spanish Revival architecture) along the F Street corridor or a California bungalow style to blend in with the existing residential neighborhood to the east.

Other design conditions recommended by the commission included a tree-lined parkway with decorative wrought iron fencing along Chestnut, Cedar and F streets, a seven-foot chain link fence with climbing vines facing the alley behind the complex, trellises and shrubs to hide the trash enclosure, and the installation of decorative street lighting to match those across F Street.

In his planning commission staff report, Collins said changing the zoning of the property “service commercial” to the “multi-family residential” would prevent residents in the area from living near businesses that could be “noisy, not visually-pleasing and generate a fair amount of traffic,” such as auto repair, warehousing, lumber yards and sheet metal yards. He also noted that residential in-fill projects near downtown would provide more foot traffic for businesses at the city’s center.

“Given the subject site abuts three residential neighborhoods, staff has concluded that a residential use is more compatible with these three residential neighborhoods than a service commercial use,” the report stated.

All of which were incorporated for the council’s passage. Councilman Frankie Alves took the opposite of Leland’s point of view when it came to the design. And added that it fits with current architecture in town.

“Right down the street you have Rocky Hill Community Church which is a Spanish style,” Alves said. “I don’t think this is ran through by any means. You guys at the planning commission spent your due diligence working the kinks out to the point that you answered all my questions.”

Alves added that he often sees inquiries about vacancies for apartments on social, and added that it is a flaw in the housing market that Exeter is not filling.

“There is a demand for single bedroom apartments that the market isn’t providing,” Collins echoed.

Alves also asked about Morgan’s intended timeline.

“We want to start as soon as possible…we have to get the plans finally approved…this is pretty simple for us,” Morgan said.

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