A1 A1
top story
208-unit development proposed for Route 32 in North Swanzey
  • Updated

NORTH SWANZEY — Town officials are considering another proposal for a large residential development, this one to include 208 apartments on Old Homestead Highway.

Residents are again pushing back.

Despite hearing concerns that the project — comprising four 52-unit buildings and a 5,000-square-foot industrial building at the Safford Drive intersection — could cause heavy traffic and sully rural features, Swanzey’s zoning board of adjustment voted Monday night to advance the proposal.

The development would replace a small multi-family home at 244 Old Homestead Highway (Route 32), according to Chad Branon, a civil engineer who introduced the project on behalf of the Canton, Mass.-based John Flatley Co. Zoning rules for the 24-acre site, part of the Safford Drive industrial park, do not allow multi-family dwellings and limit buildings to a height of 45 feet.

Those regulations required the John Flatley Co. to obtain a pair of variances from the zoning board, since each of the proposed buildings would be 54 feet tall.

Board members voted unanimously Monday to authorize a multi-family dwelling in the industrial park district and voted 4-1 to grant a variance for the roof height. Adam Mulhearn was the sole dissenting vote at the hearing, held in person at Whitcomb Hall and also broadcast remotely.

In his presentation to the board, Branon said the privately owned property has not attracted a buyer who would use it for a commercial venture, as town officials intended when they created the industrial park district in 2014, due to large wetland areas and varied topography at the site. The proposed industrial building on Old Homestead Highway would be “flex space,” he said, that could be shared by multiple businesses.

“We do think that’s it’s an appropriate use for the site, given the fact that this property has been marketed for a number of years and it’s been unsuccessful in finding an industrial user,” he said.

Branon told zoning officials that the John Flatley Co., which owns commercial and residential complexes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, offers upscale living accommodations and in Swanzey would build an on-site pool. That development would boost the town’s tax base, he said, estimating that revenue from its residents would fund 10 percent of the current municipal budget.

Since the apartments would be split between one- and two-bedroom units, Branon added, they’re likely to attract young professionals rather than families, helping provide a workforce for local businesses and spur economic growth.

“We think a project like this has an ability to make Swanzey an attraction for these reasons,” he said. “… Housing is a recognized need across the state of New Hampshire.”

Swanzey economic development advisory committee Chairman JR Coughlin echoed that argument in a recent letter to the zoning board. Voicing support for the development project on behalf of that committee, Coughlin said the group has heard from many business owners that they struggle to hire employees, often due to a lack of available housing.

“Additional housing such as this proposal should bring more prospective workers for Swanzey’s businesses to the area,” he wrote.

Housing experts have said the region and the state need more housing, including affordable units, to help bring rental costs down. The state’s Council on Housing Stability has called for the creation of 13,500 new units by 2024.

While also advocating for more housing in Swanzey, a number of residents nonetheless pushed back on the Old Homestead Highway development Monday night.

Several said the mixed-use project would generate a substantial amount of traffic on the state highway, where a new access road would be built for the apartments. Paul Cully, who lives farther north on Old Homestead Highway, told zoning officials that exiting his driveway is already a “nightmare.”

“If we’re going to have 200 cohabitators half a mile down the road … I might never get out of my driveway again,” he said.

Public criticism over the project also included concerns from nearby residents that they would be able to see the new apartments or that their homes would be negatively affected. Explaining that she and her neighbors had flooding in their basements this past summer due to heavy rains, Beth Harrington said she’s worried the development would cause even more runoff in that area.

“I don’t understand how a development of this size and impact would not impact that,” she said. “… I’d like to keep Swanzey as a small country town. I think we all do. This is a beautiful place to live.”

Similar opposition held up at least two other recent development projects in Swanzey.

The zoning board denied a special exception for a 76-unit proposal at 115 Old Homestead Highway last year, after many nearby residents said the apartments would alter their neighborhood’s rural character. The N.H. Supreme Court is scheduled to consider that project next month after a lower court said the zoning board had ruled on it unlawfully.

The same developer, the Walpole-based Avanru Development Group, has also proposed 84 units of workforce housing on Route 10. That project drew similar concerns but was moving forward as of September, the company said.

After receiving the variances Monday, the John Flatley development still needs approval by Swanzey’s planning board. That review considers many more factors — such as traffic impact — than the limited criteria to grant a variance, zoning board member Bryan Rudgers told opponents of the project Monday night.

“It’s really unfortunate that the ZBA just can’t take those [concerns] under consideration because legally we’re not allowed to,” he said.

There are more jobs than jobless people in 42 states

A record number of job openings and fewer workers to fill them have left 42 states with more available jobs than people looking for work, according to a Stateline analysis of federal statistics from August, the latest available.

Employers such as RF Buche, who runs a 116-year-old family chain of South Dakota fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, are scrambling to fill shifts and cutting store hours because they can’t find enough help.

“I’m more worried about burnout than anything else, people working extra shifts,” Buche said. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in this business all my life.”

The labor shortage, by one measure the most acute since 1968, means higher wages and increased bargaining power for workers. But some experts fear it also could dampen economic growth as the country struggles to recover from the pandemic. And it could make it more difficult to implement the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan Congress approved, which the White House has said is expected to create millions of jobs in fields such as construction and trucking.

South Dakota, where Buche seeks workers, has one of the highest ratios of job openings to unemployed people who might fill them: There are nearly two openings for every unemployed person looking for work.

The ratio of jobs-to-jobless is almost 3 to 1 in Nebraska and more than 2 to 1 in Utah, New Hampshire, Vermont, Idaho, Georgia, Alabama and Montana. In most states, the ratio is higher now than it was before the pandemic.

There are just eight states with more unemployed workers than job openings: Hawaii, followed by California, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey and Nevada. Hawaii and Nevada are heavily dependent on tourism, which still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. That may change as the United States reopens its borders to international travelers who are vaccinated.

Most of the states with more jobless people than jobs have plenty of white-collar positions that allow people to work remotely. The labor shortage is most acute in sectors with relatively low pay and high public contact, such as transportation, food service and hospitality.

The shortage is snarling critical services in many states and cities.

Some Massachusetts towns, for example, are offering up to $310 an hour to snowplow operators amid stiff competition for commercial drivers. Paid firefighters and medics are in short supply in parts of Virginia. A shortage of workers has meant longer waits for public buses in St. Louis and fewer menu options in school cafeterias in Utah.

While the national unemployment rate is down to 4.6 percent as of October, that’s not true for all groups, according to estimates for the third quarter from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Black workers still face double-digit unemployment in Illinois (10.8 percent) and California (10.4 percent), and Hispanic unemployment in New York is 10.7 percent.

“This brings up the question, ‘Are these employers’ hiring pools as diverse as they could be?’ ” said Kyle Moore, an economist with the institute. “When wages are high enough and people are satisfied with safety provisions like protective equipment, they will take these jobs.”

In South Dakota, Buche faces a deficit of about 55 shifts out of the 416 he needs most weeks in his convenience stores and restaurants.

Half of that deficit he attributes to hiring woes, but he said the other half is from part-time employees who don’t want more work and don’t need the money since they’re not splurging on extras such as movies and restaurants.

“We’re losing a lot to COVID fears. They’re not the primary breadwinners and they think ‘Hey, I’ll just stay back home.’ They could get by financially without major concerns,” Buche said. He said his jobs pay more than minimum wage, and he’s recently tried offering $2,000 signing bonuses and employee meal discounts.

Some experts see the dearth of willing workers as a sign that the trauma of the pandemic has prompted people to reassess their career choices, making them less willing to tolerate low pay and unpredictable schedules.

“A lot of businesses are set up for an economy where there’s a bunch of people who are willing to take a minimum wage job with irregular hours,” said Matt Darling, an employment policy fellow at the nonpartisan Niskanen Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “Those businesses are set up for a strategy that no longer works.”

Despite offering higher pay, better benefits and more flexibility, many Kentucky employers “still struggle to find workers, or even applicants,” said Charles Aull, senior policy analyst for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Kentucky, which has two job openings for every potential worker, has been struggling with a falling labor force participation rate since 2000, according to a September report from the Kentucky Chamber Foundation. That coincides with a freefall in the state’s coal production, which once provided relatively well-paying jobs.

“The pandemic and economic recovery have accelerated preexisting trends and magnified our weak points,” the report concluded.

Darling said factors such as lower immigration, more workers taking early retirement and generous unemployment benefits all have contributed to the labor shortage. But he pointed out that while the overall labor force participation rate is down, the participation rate for the “prime age” workforce, ages 25-54, is back to where it was in 2017.

“Unemployment insurance wasn’t holding the labor force back—it was COVID,” said Darling. He added that he stands by an October Niskanen post saying, “Crowded ports and ‘for hire’ signs are the growing pains associated with entering an age of abundance.”

Other experts also see the openings as a temporary glitch in an improving economy. Mary C. Daly, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, predicted in a blog post that many people who are reluctant to return to work now will jump back into the workforce as the pandemic recedes.

“Myriad factors are tempering labor supply at the moment—the need to care for children, fears of COVID, generous unemployment benefits,” Daly wrote. “But there is no reason to expect those to be permanent … the lesson is simple: Americans want to work, and it would be a mistake to assume otherwise.”

In South Dakota, where there were 1.6 job openings for every unemployed person the month before the pandemic began, some employers want to lure more workers from other states. The South Dakota Retailers Association is offering $1,000 for anyone who moves to the state and holds a job for at least three months.

The bounty could pay off in places such as North Sioux City, a South Dakota suburb of Sioux City, Iowa, where it might be relatively easy to switch states, said Nathan Sanderson, the retail association’s executive director. The state’s low cost of living and lack of a state income tax also could draw young families.

“Most of the places where there are jobs here would be great places to live and work and raise a family,” Sanderson said.

Some lawmakers in both parties are calling for more immigration to replenish shrinking communities that have factories, farms and nurseries desperate for manual labor.

In states such as South Dakota and Nebraska, immigrants make up a large part of the workforce in meat-packing plants, which kept running through the pandemic to protect the food supply and often saw large COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Everybody is screaming and yelling about the acute nature of the labor shortage at the low end, and they see immigrants at the border ready to work and we need them,” said Bob Worsley, a former Arizona Republican state senator who spoke at a recent immigration conference sponsored by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Worsley cited the woes of an Idaho asparagus farmer who invited people to pick his crop for their own use in April when immigrant workers failed to materialize.

“We need immigrants, and we need to treat them right,” Worsley said. “We’ve mistreated them for decades, every time we’ve allowed immigrants to come in and solve our labor force problems. This goes back to the Irish.”

Amendment aims to expand exemptions from vaccine requirements

Lawmakers will hold a public hearing Tuesday on an amendment that would not only add private employers and schools to those disallowed from requiring vaccines but also create a conscientious objection exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine.

That last one is not without precedent.

Widespread resistance to mandated vaccines led the United Kingdom in 1898 to add a “conscience” objection to its vaccine requirements. That option became the precursor to a “philosophical” exemption adopted by the United States and still recognized today by 15 states that allows a philosophical exemption to school immunization requirements. New Hampshire, which allows religious and medical exemptions from school vaccine requirements, is not among them.

Rep. Timothy Lang, a Sanbornton Republican who has led the legislative effort to fight vaccine mandates, wants to change that and cited that history when asked about the amendment. As written by Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican, the prohibition on mandating vaccines would go beyond the state and local governments included in legislation Gov. Chris Sununu signed this year.

It would essentially apply to every employer, including private schools, clubs, religious entities, nonprofits, corporations, a “joint stock company,” and “society.” It does not carve out county nursing homes and state-run hospitals and prisons as existing law does.

Sununu would not support such legislation, said spokesman Ben Vihstadt: “As the governor has repeatedly said, he is opposed to the government either prohibiting or mandating vaccines on private businesses.”

Ladd could not be immediately reached with questions about the amendment.

The House Education Committee will take public comment on the amendment Tuesday at 10 a.m. in Representatives Hall at the Statehouse.

Pandemic sent people fishing like crazy; other outdoor sectors suffered

The pandemic clobbered certain parts of the outdoor recreation industry in 2020, cutting its employment in New Hampshire by one-fifth, but even so, the industry contributed more to the economy of the Granite State than in most other states in the country.

That’s one conclusion from a U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis study. It said the outdoor recreation industry — which it considers everything from amusement parks and outdoor concerts to fishing trips and RV’ing — contributed $2.2 billion New Hampshire’s economy, about 2.6 percent of the gross domestic product in 2020, and employed over 26,500 people.

Only eight other states got a larger share of their GDP from the outdoor industry. Among those were Maine, where the tally was 3.3 percent, and Vermont, whose 3.7 percent was topped only by Hawaii and Montana.

Areas that boomed in New Hampshire in 2020 were those that could be enjoyed by individuals even while social distancing. It was led by boating and fishing, which rose a whopping 41 percent, and bicycling saw a hefty 14 percent increase. Camping in a RV saw a 9 percent increase and off-road riding a 5 percent boost.

“Noteworthy is the productive output of the RV, boating, and biking segments, which are likely harbingers of 2021 numbers. Going forward, the New Hampshire outdoor industry is mobilized and well-positioned to improve its meaningful impact through workforce initiatives, community development, and making the outdoors accessible and welcoming to all,” said Tyler Ray of the industry group Granite Outdoor Alliance.

“Despite the global pandemic, New Hampshire’s outdoor recreation employers were still significant drivers of the state’s economy last year,” said BEA Commissioner Taylor Caswell.

Presumably because many of the increased activities require little or no interaction with a business, the number of jobs related to outdoor activities in New Hampshire fell sharply, declining more than 41 other states. Outdoor employment was down 20.7 percent in 2020, according to federal data, compared to a national decline of 17.1 percent. Vermont (26 percent) and Maine (24 percent) saw even sharper declines.

To access the full report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, visit https://www.bea.gov/sites/default/files/2021-11/orsa1121.pdf.