Merrimack College

Merrimack College received approval Tuesday to build two dorms on its campus at the corner of Elm and Turnpike streets in North Andover.

NORTH ANDOVER ֱ A variance for Merrimack College to construct two buildings to house more than 500 students was approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals Tuesday.

The structures would be built on Merrimackֱs campus at the corner of Andover and Turnpike streets.

The vote was 4 to 1, with ZBA Chair Alexandria Jacobs voting against, saying the buildings are too big for the proposed location.

Merrimack was seeking simultaneous judgments on a finding and a variance with respect to the proposal, and a decision on the finding was continued until the next ZBA meeting.

ֱWhen it comes to findings, itֱs almost ingrained, that for me to overturn a finding is essentially saying that our building inspector is wrong,ֱ Jacobs said. ֱThat never sits well with me.ֱ

At Tuesdayֱs meeting, the ZBA also approved a petition for a special permit from Homegrown Lacrosse for a 39,000 square-foot athletic facility at 492 Sutton St.

The variance for Merrimack approved a height of 48 feet for the two buildings, which would occupy the Residential 3 zoning district, where the height limit is 35 feet.

The project is still being considered by the planning board, which will take up the topic again on Tuesday, Nov. 21, after Merrimack sought a continuance at the last meeting.

Both boards are considering Merrimackֱs plans as a Dover project, which invokes a state law giving nonprofits such as colleges leeway with respect to zoning requirements.

The planning boardֱs assessment is also governed by a process that was approved at Town Meeting and supplements review of Dover projects with eight elements.

John Simons, a member of the planning board, wrote a letter to the ZBA that was read at Tuesdayֱs meeting, urging members not to approve the height variance sought by Merrimack.

ֱThe applicant has clear alternatives to this proposal, including reducing the height to three stories to be compliant, moving the buildings off Route 114 by extending into the Andover portion of Merrimack land, or submitting a zoning change to the town meeting,ֱ Simons wrote.

Mark Johnson, an attorney who represents the college for this project, said that Simonsֱ objections failed to appreciate the standards that are used to assess Dover projects.

ֱEven under a variance, Dover is not a hardship, itֱs a reasonableness test, and therefore you donֱt have the typical variance requirements, and I think itֱs pretty clear under Dover and Dover case law that thatֱs what weֱre dealing with,ֱ Johnson said.

Jeff Doggett, executive vice president and chief financial and operating officer at Merrimack, said Tuesday the variance was necessary in order for Merrimack to achieve its objectives with these structures.

The two buildings together would create dorm space for 540 students who live at Royal Crest Estates, a private development across Turnpike Street where 800 Merrimack students live.

They comprise half the population of Royal Crest, where their behavior often provokes complaints. They also need to cross Turnpike Street every day at a HAWK light to get to classes, which can cause traffic congestion.

A plan to build two dorms that would stand 69 feet tall and house 1,000 students at Royal Crest, which was later revised to accommodate 800 students, was defeated at Town Meeting last year.

Those plans were part of a more extensive program that would also have created new market rate, senior and affordable housing units at Royal Crest. Rejection of the program forced Merrimack to revert to previous plans to build new dorms on campus, Doggett said.

One of the two buildings that Merrimack wants to build would occupy 77,600 square feet along Turnpike Street and house 366 students, in addition to providing academic spaces. The building on Andover Street would have a footprint of 67,000 square feet and include 174 beds and academic space.

ֱWe originally looked at what would happen if we put 800 beds on this corner, what would it take to take 800 beds that were supposed to be at Royal Crest and put them on the corner,ֱ Doggett said. ֱWe redesigned the master plan of that. That was going to end up being a seven story, two building project where the length of the 114 building would have been even longer.ֱ

Doggett said building plans had also been considered that were shorter and longer, but they looked ֱsilly,ֱ and the four-story design that they are now proposing is the only one that fits the site and the collegeֱs finances.

ֱWeֱve cut the type of housing to reduce the square feet, weֱve cut the number of beds well beneath where we started, weֱve cut the height down, which is whatֱs driving the bed count to be reduced, and weֱve gotten down to the point where if we go any lower we make this project not financially viable,ֱ Doggett said.

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