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Board Seeks Charlestown Preservation

Old buildings are seen on North Main Street in Charlestown, N.H., on November 26, 2013. A proposed zoning change would preserve some of the historic buildings in the area between Sullivan Street and Bridge Street. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

Old buildings are seen on North Main Street in Charlestown, N.H., on November 26, 2013. A proposed zoning change would preserve some of the historic buildings in the area between Sullivan Street and Bridge Street. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

Charlestown — The Planning Board has proposed changing the zoning on a short stretch of North Main Street with the intent of preserving some of the landmark buildings along Route 12.

The proposed zoning change comes in the wake of the approval of a new and larger Jiffy Mart store with a Subway restaurant and gas pumps on the site of a historic home that has raised concerns about the spread of retail businesses into a historic area.

“A lot of people, particularly the historical society and heritage commission, were concerned with the new Jiffy Mart,” Town Administrator Dave Edkins said, explaining why the new zone is being proposed.

The Planning Board approved the Jiffy Mart site plan in September, overriding opposition of most of the residents who attended the meeting.

The Jiffy Mart will go up on the site of the historic Stephen Hassam house on Main Street, across from Sullivan Street. The house, one of the oldest in town and built by Hassam, a renowned clockmaker in the late 1700s and early 1800s, has been vacant for about 15 years and fallen into disrepair. The structure is to be dismantled with plans to eventually have it rebuilt elsewhere in town.

Opposition to the convienence store being built on the site is what prompted Planning Board Vice Chairwoman Sharon Francis to “put pen to paper” as she described it, and propose parameters for the new zone.

The new zone would encompass a section of North Main Street that includes several businesses, some in historic structures, a church and homes. Roughly a tenth of a mile in length, the stretch runs from Sullivan Street on the south and extends north to the southern boundary of the fire station and Bridge Street. To the west it is bordered by the Boston & Maine Railroad right-of-way and to the east, 250 feet from the centerline of Route 12.

Permitted uses in the zone, “compatible with historic residential dwellings,” would include residences, professional offices for lawyers, surveyors, engineers, dentists, doctors and veterinarians and businesses such as real estate, insurance, funeral services, nonprofits and bed and breakfast establishments. Detached one- or two-family dwellings would also be allowed — but not, notably, the kind of businesses such as fast food restaurants, gas stations and retails stores that typically dot downtown Charlestown.

The intent of the proposed Zone A-2 — preserving the historic character of North Main Street — is similar to that of Zone A, which covers the southern part of Main Street where there are several historic houses and tighter restrictions on new development.

“We were very conflicted over Jiffy Mart,” said Francis, the former longtime executive director of the Connecticut River Joint Commissions and a top environmental staffer in the White House of President Lyndon Johnson.

While recognizing that the present Jiffy Mart on Main Street was too small and too congested, and that Champlain Oil, the owner, is a “valued member of the business community,” the loss of a historic house was nonetheless “deplorable” to many, Francis said.

“It had a good purpose,” Francis said about the new Jiffy Mart at the Hassam house location. “But it was far from ideal.”

Charlestown was first chartered by the Colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1735 as Plantation No. 4, and was the northernmost township along the Connecticut River, according to the town’s website. The Fort at No. 4 across from the confluence of the Black and Connecticut Rivers was a key outpost in the pre-Revolutionary colonies.

The town received National Historic Register designation for its Main Street in the 1980s, but Francis said the designation does not carry any special protections for historic properties beyond what the owner seeks to do. She noted the zoning change would establish an extra layer of protection.

The new Jiffy Mart triggered concern among some that the commercial “invasion” on Main Street could spread north, possibly leading to a widening of the road and subsequent loss of a green strip and trees, Francis said.

Property owners in the proposed zoning district can weigh in on the concept at the Planning Board’s Dec. 3 meeting. “First and foremost, we need to know how the property owners feel,” said Francis. “If they are all against it, we better know that now. But if they like it, maybe we will have something we can take to the town (at March Town Meeting.)”

The new Jiffy Mart and the historic Sumner House, a restaurant, will be outside the zone and be made part of Zone B, to the south, which has more commercial and retail establishments and more permitted uses.

At the Nov. 19 Planning Board, the discussion about the new district focused on signage and what size should be permitted. Currently, the proposed zone A-2 is a mixed-use area (Zone E) that allows up to 50 square feet of signage on a building and another 50 square feet free standing and is less restrictive when it comes to permitted uses.

The board agreed to recommend the maximum sign size for zone A-2 at 25 square feet, which is identical to what is allowed in Zone B, in the middle of town on Main Street bordering the proposed zone. Existing signs in the new Zone A-2, the board agreed, can be replaced either by the current property owner or if it is sold, the new property owner, at the same dimensions, even if they exceed 25 square feet.

Edkins said the board did not want to restrict the size of signs to the five-square foot maximum that is allowed in zone A on the south end of Main Street because of the current make up of that part of Main Street.

“In recognition of the fact there are more existing businesses there, (than in Zone A) the board did not want to impose a hardship,” Edkins said.

Also on the Dec. 3 meeting is the site plan review for a new Dollar General store on the southern side of Sullivan Street and just off Main Street. It is outside the proposed Zone A-2

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com.