DUBLIN — Driving into Dublin on Route 101, you can’t miss the sign.
Propped up against a tree, it stands 4-by-8-feet tall and proclaims “Coming Soon: Taco Bell.”
The fast-food restaurant isn’t actually coming to town; the sign was put up by Dublin General Store owner Andrew Freeman. But Freeman says he’s doing this to illustrate a point: A Taco Bell or McDonald’s in Dublin could become a reality.
Freeman says he’s opposed to a warrant article that could open the door for such businesses to come to town. If approved, a zoning amendment on the March town warrant would permit commercial drive-throughs in Dublin’s neighborhood commercial district. Drive-throughs would also be allowed by special exception in the village and rural districts. The only place they wouldn’t be permitted is the mountain district, which covers the area surrounding Mount Monadnock.
The town’s master plan prohibits drive-throughs.
Freeman’s not alone. Other town residents are concerned by this expansion, which they say was proposed too suddenly by the planning board.
The board began discussing the article in early November, according to meeting minutes.
The commercial district covers the area around the intersection of Routes 101 and 137, according to Dublin Planning Board Chairman Bruce Simpson. The village and rural districts make up most of the rest of the town.
And this is worrying some residents, who say allowing one or multiple drive-throughs in the town would drastically change Dublin’s rural character.
“This is one bucolic town,” Freeman said. “I don’t want to be the home of the first drive-through between Wilton and Keene.”
Freeman said he’s been approached by multiple developers over the years, looking to put anything from solar panels to affordable housing in a field he owns on 101, where the sign now stands. (The sign has also drawn attention from town officials, who recently issued a cease-and-desist order for Freeman to remove it).
The zoning amendment comes a year after a proposed expansion of the Citgo gas station and convenience store at the intersection of Routes 101 and 137 was rejected by the zoning board, which heard from concerned abutters. Their main issue was with the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through that store owner Cheshire Oil Co. had proposed.
But Simpson said in the wake of the application, a number of residents came to the planning board, asking for drive-throughs to be permitted in parts of town.
“The board came to a consensus that maybe it should be put on the ballot and see which way the people of Dublin ... vote on it,” Simpson said.
Simpson said the reason the board decided the drive-through zoning should cover much of the town was because “it was unfair to only limit it to the neighborhood commercial district.”
Simpson said he believes a drive-through will be hard to put in the village and rural districts if the article is approved.
“There’s a lot of different zoning ordinances that would apply (for it) to be allowed,” he said. “Any drive-throughs would need to get special exception from the zoning board of adjustment. That might be a hard burden in the village district and the rural district.”
When asked if he thought the article would open the town to more commercial development, Simpson said he doubted it.
“I don’t think it’s very likely,” he said. “Except in the neighborhood commercial district, the zoning board would have to find that (a drive-through is) not going to affect the surrounding area.”
But Bill Barker, a former zoning board member who opposes the drive-through zoning plan, said that, historically, a special exception waiver is easy to obtain.
“It’s usually granted,” he said. “It is rare to turn down the special exception. It would not be difficult to put in (a drive-through).”
Soon after he put up his Taco Bell sign, Freeman said his phone was ringing off the hook. Some calls were from people looking for work at Taco Bell, he says, but many others were from people who were concerned.
“The amount of feedback we’ve gotten at the store, over the phone or by email ... it’s been outstanding,” Freeman said. “A disproportionate amount of people are upset that something like that could happen in Dublin.”
The residents who oppose the article say they’re worried the article was put on the ballot too hastily and that people don’t understand the wide swath of area in town the article would affect.
“They were under the impression that it would be one location and one location only,” Freeman said.
A public hearing in January was the only time it was publicly discussed before being put on the ballot, according to meeting minutes.
Barker said the town in the past has taken such zoning steps slowly.
“This town has been very good at zoning,” Barker said. “They have had incredible committees, it’s always been a public process. To have this thing pop up out of nowhere, it wasn’t good process. I don’t think the planning board really thought about it.”
But Simpson said the planning board was following the normal process.
“I think that generally the zoning amendments are put on the ballot and decided at the end of the year ... in accordance with the statutes,” he said. “There are public hearings.”
The planning board considered taking the article off the ballot after concerns were raised on the article’s wording, according to meeting minutes from Feb. 16. But at that point, it was too late to remove it.
Freeman and other residents say they are trying to encourage people to vote no on the article at the polls March 11.
“Ballot vote is the answer,” Freeman said. “The problem I have was the way it was timed, the way it was worded, and the lack of general information there was.”
There will be a pre-town-meeting forum Tuesday, March 4, at 7 p.m. at town hall. Voters will vote on ballot articles and town officers March 11 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the town hall. Town meeting will be held Saturday, March 15, at 9 a.m. at Dublin Consolidated School.