State holds up on offer to sell right-of-way on Route 1-A
Wentworth runs into Swim & Beach Club detour; mulls next steps
Thirty feet in from Route 1-A (right) is a state right-of-way in front of a proposed Swim & Beach Club. Right now part of it is unused, except for a decorative rowboat and a couple of trees in front of rental cabins (not shown, at left). Beyond the tree and boat is a pizza sign and a paved parking lot used by a set of businesses that border Wallis Road. (Jack Driscoll photo)
Like a golfer whose arcing shot is caught in a gust of wind, the Wentworth by the Sea Country Club has encountered the unexpected in its quest to build a Swim & Beach Club in Rye in the form of a sliver of land measuring roughly 30 feet by 300 feet.
After five months of obtaining approvals and permits, Wentworth was confronted with the sliver issue in mid-September as the club arrived at its last major step in the review process. Almost simultaneously Rye's Board of Selectmen and Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) raised questions about the sliver which is part of a state right-of-way (ROW) that runs in an uneven pattern alongside all of Route 1-A and where Wentworth was planning to develop a 2 1/2-acre area at the corner of Wallis Road. The site is now occupied by commercial spaces at the corner and cabins on the south side. The state Department of Transportation (DOT) was willing to sell the land as surplus to Wentworth.
However, the Selectmen, who are not part of the proposal review process, expressed concern in a September 21 letter to DOT over "the precedent it will set if this right-of-way is approved for sale" and over "the threatened loss of valuable parking spaces for the public on Rte. 1-A." (Click here
for a full text of the letter.)
The ZBA refused to begin its proceedings over the proposed development until Wentworth had a purchase-and-sale agreement for the sliver. That prompted a frustrated Peter Weeks, Wentworth's senior vice president, to raise the chicken-and-egg analogy as reported in Rye Reflections' October story
: the ZBA needed a sales agreement before it would hear the proposal; the state wouldn't sign an agreement without ZBA's approval.
So now what? "From our end we have put the matter on hold," said Jeff Brillhart, assistant DOT commissioner, in a telephone interview, adding that there are several ways the situation might be resolved. A possibility he raised is that "the developer may be looking to revise his plan" to work around the right-of-way issue. He also said the Rockingham Planning Commission may be playing a role as regards longer-range planning issues for the area.
General Manager Bob Diodati would say only that the Wentworth team is discussing its options.
Selectmen hold hearing
It's unusual for the Board of Selectmen to inject itself into any facet of a proposal before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. But the Selectmen called for a public session and moved their regular meeting to the Rye Junior High School on October 5 to air the matter.
Acting chair Joe Mills and Craig Musselman both made it clear that the meeting pertained only to the sale of right-of-way land and had no bearing on the proposal by the Wentworth by the Sea Country Club. (The third board member, Priscilla Jenness, was unable to attend due to a foot injury but submitted a letter expressing her concerns.)
Present, along with about 40 townspeople, were Brillhart, Executive Councilor Beverly Hollingworth, state Senator Martha Fuller Clark, state Representative David Borden who represents Rye and Newcastle, state Representative Christopher Nevins, who represents Hampton, and Scott Bogle, senior transportation planner for the Rockingham Planning Commission.
Brillhart was asked to speak first, having sent a response to the Selectmen's letter. Brillhart's letter had read in part:
"When the Country Club's driveway permit request was brought forward, they had presumed that the highway right-of-way that had served the restaurant and cabins for many years would be available to serve the Country Club's needs as well. In an earlier era the use of the right-of-way by abutting property owners was deemed acceptable. In today's world with a change in property use and with liability issues and clear ownership requirements, the Department felt that such an informal, previously grandfathered arrangement would not be acceptable. A suggested resolution was to reformulate the right-of-way and sell the surplus land …
"The Department … has concluded that a 66-foot-wide highway right-of-way would be sufficiently wide enough given the constraints and uses in place now and over the foreseeable future. Such a width provides space for two thru lanes, a potential center turn lane at intersections with other public roads, 4-foot paved shoulders, potential 5-foot sidewalks, and 6-foot utility areas (for utilities, drainage, snow storage, etc.) … The Department also notes that the current, informal use of state right-of-way poses serious safety issues due to head-in parking, pedestrians crossing, multiple driveways, and three legs of traffic all taking place at a fairly congested intersection. The proposed development would bring considerably more order to the intersection.
"The Department is prepared to sell the right-of-way to the Country Club on the condition that the Town and state approvals for the redevelopment are in hand. As previously stated, the Department does not want to stand in the way of what the Town may believe is a reasonable use for the property. If the Town is willing to approve this project but does not want the right-of-way sold to a private entity, the Department is prepared to sell the right-of-way to the Town, and the Town could lease the property to the Country Club." (end of excerpt)
The Swim & Beach Club being proposed by the Wentworth by the Sea Country Club would include a dining area, 25-meter pool, parking for 56 cars and a takeout window. Ocean Boulevard is in the foreground. Sketch provided by TMS Architects (Bill Soupcoff). Engineering company is Ambit. (Click on drawing for larger version).
Brillhart told the Selectmen and audience that the sale of right-of-way land was not unusual. "We see the development as an opportunity to lessen the incidents of accidents."
Zeroing in on parking, Mills responded, "My honest opinion is that I am totally opposed. I don't know what is going to happen 50 years from now." (He later clarified that he was expressing opposition to the property sale not the development.)
"We're going to lose maybe 15 parking spaces if that is sold," Mills said.
Musselman concentrated on the issue of precedent, saying, "There are 50 or 60 lots along there — maybe more … that might very well have interest in approaching the DOT" about buying the land. "Have you thought about the implications of that happening 10 times or 60 times in Rye?" Musselman said it also could happen elsewhere in Rye and up and down the Seacoast from Seabrook to New Castle. (Rep. Nevins supported that concern later when he spoke: "What happens in Rye may happen in Hampton.")
Musselman also said the road "could support parking on both sides … if you left the right-of-way where it is." He said that at the present time there are safety concerns for pedestrians and bicyclists when people open their car doors heading to the beach. "For that reason we specified that the East Coast Greenway would go inland to bypass this stretch … it seems we haven't done our multimodal study of this corridor to determine what it is that we want … a hundred years out."
"I guess I don't have an answer to that," Brillhart said. "The question you raise is a good one, and we'll go back and mull it over. I don't know when the studies will get done," he added, a point clearly not lost on attending Wentworth officials, who at one point hoped part of the Swim & Beach Club could be a reality next summer.
Borden echoed the need for more study of the general area: "This should be part of a much bigger plan," he said, referencing safety and storm water runoff considerations as traffic and pedestrian traffic increases over the years. He also said, "We should consider the possibility of putting lights there."
Senator Fuller Clark stressed the need to maintain "the scenic and cultural quality of the byway. Without making specific reference to the chicken-and-egg predicament Wentworth finds itself in, Fuller admitted the Legislature needs to look at the process. Her remarks were underscored by Councilor Hollingworth who said, "We are in a bind, and we only have a couple of weeks to go," referring to what would have been the next step in the sale process. As it turned out the DOT put off taking that step.
Musselman read the written comments from Selectwoman Jenness that raised questions as to whether DOT might have plans for road widening in the Odiorne and Wallis Sands State Park areas. Turning to the issue at hand, Jenness asked, "Was there any contact between DOT and the Department of Resources and Economic Development concerning the sale of this 'excess property', and, if not, why not?"
She concluded, "It is clear, given the origin of Route 1-A, that the planners made it a point to state that the project was for all time to be in the public interest."
'The Other Side'
Finally getting his turn to speak, Bill Binnie, owner and president of the Wentworth by the Sea Country Club, emphasized that "there is another side to this story."
He pointed out that the Wentworth Country Club is a not-for-profit organization seeking to serve its members more broadly at a time when "golf is a declining sport," by developing a rundown commercial lot. More than 100 years old, the club has 400 members from Rye, he said, and 600 children, 150 employees and "in my tenure (15 years) … " we've provided in excess of $5 million in tax money" to Rye.
"This is not a reason to approve this right-of-way, " he said, but consideration should be given to the 400 members "you as town fathers" represent as well as the fact that a struggling commercial property — one of only six or seven "at the Wentworth end of town" — would be made "healthy and vibrant".
Offering to sit down with town officials to work out what would be best for all parties, Binnie said, "I'm frankly amazed that you're against something that we haven't even discussed or had the opportunity to discuss."
"Our intentions here are positive … they are not commercial based," he said.
Binnie also offered to give the Town first option on the right-of-way land should the Wentworth purchase it and added "we'd be thrilled if you wanted to do a bike path."
Joann Price, who organized the Concerned Rye Residents to oppose the Wentworth proposal, added her voice to concerns about traffic and pedestrian problems and concluded, "I am here … to beg you to please do a longterm planning study."
Attorney David Brown, who represents Wentworth, expressed frustration over the process regarding the right-of-way. "We have followed every legal step that the state has set," he said, along with doing 14 studies and obtaining required permits over the past year. He maintained that "on balance the development "would open up parking," would make the area safer, would add a better septic system, would improve traffic conditions and would facilitate cleaner stormwater runoff to the marsh.
The upshot at this point is that the Wentworth by the Sea Country Club is stopped at the detour sign, figuring out in which direction to go next, while the state is sitting on the sidelines watching and the Town is waiting.
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