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Major update of Keene's land use code to take effect Sept. 1
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The Keene City Council has adopted an overhaul of the city’s land development code that has been in the works for several years.

The council on Thursday voted unanimously to approve two ordinances — one that aims to streamline the city’s development codes into a single document and another that establishes a new set of downtown zoning districts. The council also adopted a separate ordinance, which was connected to the code overhaul, to establish a licensing process for congregate living facilities and a board that will handle all the city’s license applications.

“It’s been a major effort, there have been numerous public presentations, staff and committee has addressed concerns,” said Councilor Mitch Greenwald during Thursday’s meeting. “Ultimately, this will simplify development. Time will tell, but this is a major improvement.”

Senior City Planner Tara Kessler has said the code update is meant to modernize rules that hadn’t been overhauled for half a century.

Councilor Philip Jones said Thursday that developers have reported having a difficult time working with the city due to its confusing rules, and that the code adopted by the council will be easier to navigate.

“This is one of the most important ordinances since I’ve been on the City Council,” he said. “I so look forward to seeing it come to fruition.”

In addition to streamlining the city’s regulations, the new code will change historic district requirements to exempt buildings less than 50 years old; update floodplain regulations to remove outdated references and remove a three-foot lower elevation limit for water storage areas; and create a new city zoning map to reflect the new downtown districts.

It will also address a number of inconsistencies related to permitted uses within different zoning districts, which has led to confusion about which uses are allowed in which parts of the city.

The new downtown districts — which will replace the existing downtown zones, including the central business and central business-limited districts — are downtown core, downtown growth, downtown limited, downtown edge, downtown transition and downtown institutional campus.

Each new district is designed to promote different types of economic activity as well as to ease the transition between commercial activity in the downtown area and nearby residential neighborhoods.

The ordinance establishing a licensing process for congregate living facilities grew out of the larger discussion about the code overhaul, Kessler said last month. Like the code overhaul, the licensing ordinance was unanimously recommended by the council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee.

The ordinance requires licenses for drug treatment clinics and residential drug treatment centers, fraternity and sorority houses, group homes, resource centers, homeless shelters, lodging houses (which already require a license) and residential care facilities. Organizations that are already operating would have one year to get a license, but new ones would have to get the license before they could begin operating.

“The main part of this ordinance is that we’re creating a new board for these licenses,” Jones said to the council. “If you remember back in 2017, we had a City Council’s goal committee, and one of the goals that came out of that was to be more systematic and this certainly helps achieve that goal.”

The licensing board will consist of five people and have the ability to approve, suspend or revoke all licenses issued by the city. It will use a fixed set of criteria in decisions, including with regard to violations by license holders.

All ordinances related to the code changes will go into effect Sept. 1 to give staff and the community time to become familiar with the new regulations.

“This is a big deal, it puts us way ahead of other communities in New Hampshire,” said Mayor George Hansel during the meeting. “I think this will be the first unified development ordinance in the state. So we’re leading the way again. This is a huge win for Keene and this sets us up to be extremely successful and create the community’s vision over the next couple of decades.”

The full land development code can be viewed online at www.keenebuildingbetter.com/ldc.

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Harrisville voters approve community power plan
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HARRISVILLE — Voters at Saturday’s annual town meeting approved the entire warrant with only one minor amendment — a $4,000 reduction to the $1.3 million operating budget.

The savings, selectboard member Jay Jacobs said, could be attributed to the mostly sunny skies Saturday morning.

“The reason for this is it’s nice out here. We didn’t have to put the tent up, and we saved four grand,” Jacobs said, drawing chuckles from the roughly 120 voters at the meeting, held in the Wells Memorial School parking lot.

The town’s $1,309,604 budget — which is $51,806, or 4.1 percent, more than the budget voters approved last year — passed easily by show of hands with no public discussion, despite Jacobs’ attempt to spur debate.

“This is your budget. This is your time to have a say in how many dollars you pay in taxes. Give it to us, tell us what we’ve done wrong, where we should cut and slash,” he said, drawing more laughter from the crowd, which represented about 13 percent of the town’s approximately 900 registered voters.

Jack Rooney / Sentinel Staff  

About 120 voters attended Harrisville’s town meeting Saturday morning outside Wells Memorial School, where they easily approved the entire warrant.

The town’s community power plan generated the most discussion at the meeting, with residents engaging in a 45-minute question-and-answer session before approving the plan with overwhelming support.

Under a community power arrangement, like the one Keene passed earlier this month, a municipal government rather than a utility sources electricity for local consumers. This gives the municipality more control over the power supply, allowing it to seek lower-cost or greener options, while a utility like Eversource continues to maintain transmission lines and deliver the electricity.

Ned Hulbert, the co-chairman of Harrisville’s Electric Aggregation Committee, which developed the community power plan, said residents can expect to see the benefits of the program in the near future.

“We think within a year we would have cheaper rates than the Eversource default rate, which is 6.6 cents per kilowatt hour, as well as more renewable green energy,” Hulbert said.

He added that Harrisville intends to offer residents electricity plans that will supply power from 50 and 75 percent renewable sources, an increase over Eversource’s default of 21 percent, which is the minimum amount required by the state. These plans offering a higher proportion of green energy likely will have slightly higher rates, Hulbert said.

Andrew Maneval, another member of the Electric Aggregation Committee, said any Harrisville resident can opt out of the community power plan, which will be funded by customers themselves and not require the town to raise taxes. This aspect of the plan appealed to Lisa Anderson, one of several residents who spoke in favor of it during the meeting.

“I love the option that, if people want to stay with Eversource they can stay with Eversource and pay what’s likely a higher rate,” Anderson said. “But they can also opt to go with this community plan and pay a cheaper rate.”

Jacobs noted that the community power plan does not guarantee that residents will always get a lower electricity rate than Eversource offers. Hulbert agreed, but added that “statistically, and I think historically in states that are doing this, they almost always have a lower default rate than the utilities.”

Hulbert also said the community power plan offers long-term benefits, including the ability for the town to establish a local reserve fund by taking a small fraction of residents’ electricity bills. This fund can be used to keep rates stable and invest in locally generated renewable energy, Hulbert said.

“Those investments could be made in the next three to seven years, and they would enable us to have cheaper, local energy that we could access, which will take away the transmission cost, which is a part of the bill,” he said.

With voters’ approval, the Harrisville Community Power Plan will now go to the N.H. Public Utilities Commission for approval. After that, the selectboard will solicit competitive bids for electric supply vendors and hold two public hearings before deciding on a supplier. The Electric Aggregation Committee expects the community power program to be operational in three to six months.

In addition to the community power plan, voters also approved the remaining eight articles on the warrant, including:

Adding a total of $105,000 to eight separate capital reserve funds.

Raising $71,000 to chip seal 2.5 miles of Hancock Road, from Bonds Corner Road east to Route 137. A state grant will cover $50,370 of this project, while taxation will fund the remaining $20,630.

Raising $48,500 through taxes to pave Island Street between Canal and Prospect streets.

Raising $14,400 through taxation to reclaim and compact 4,800 feet of Mason Road, from Willard Hill Road east to the Dublin town line. This work will prepare the road for repaving, the cost of which will appear on next year’s warrant.

Residents also supported a petitioned warrant article that directs the Harrisville selectboard to join about 60 other towns and cities statewide in urging the state Legislature to engage in a fair, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process following last year’s U.S. census.

Beyond the legislative business at the meeting Saturday, selectboard member Kathy Scott took the opportunity to honor Harrisville’s town staff, collectively, as the town’s citizen of the year.

One of those staff members, Town Clerk Cathy Lovas, also presented 96-year-old Jed Hollenbeck, who has lived in town since 1985, with a replica of Harrisville’s Boston Post Cane, recognizing him as the town’s oldest resident. The original gold-tipped ebony cane, which dates back to a 1909 newspaper sales promotion, will be put on display at the Harrisville town office.

Jack Rooney / Sentinel Staff  

Harrisville Town Clerk Cathy Lovas presents 96-year-old Jed Hollenbeck with a replica of the town’s Boston Post Cane, recognizing him at the town’s oldest resident.

After three deaths of first-year students, Dartmouth tries to bolster mental health support

HANOVER — Dartmouth College officials on Friday said they are rolling back some COVID-19 restrictions in dorms to allow students more opportunities to socialize with each other following the third unexpected death this school year of a member of the freshman class.

College officials said they were also adding options for addressing academic issues and increasing mental health support, including for suicide prevention.

“The pandemic has exacerbated many problems, but foremost among them has been mental health,” Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon, Provost Joseph Helble and six deans said in a message to students, employees and parents of undergraduates late Friday afternoon. “On this critical issue, we must do more to support our community.”

Several students have said they are concerned about the effects that the pandemic has had on their classmates’ mental health and the college’s response.

“Everyone’s just really socially isolated,” said Jaymie Wei, a Dartmouth junior who is currently living in Boston but plans to return to campus this summer.

Dartmouth, like many others around the country, has labored to keep students apart in order to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, while also helping them navigate the resulting isolation.

The expanded mental health services announced Friday come on top of previous efforts to bolster such support for students both on and off campus earlier this year.

Under the newly relaxed restrictions the administrators announced, students will now be allowed to host two guests who also live on campus in their dorm rooms at a time.

They continue to be allowed to gather in groups as large as nine indoors and outdoors and schedule formal gatherings of up to 25. As vaccination rates increase, the school has said it is preparing for a normal return to campus in the fall. For students who are struggling academically, the college extended deadlines for electing a non-recording grade option or an incomplete.

To increase students’ access to care, the college is adding a second nurse to the on-call staffing at Dartmouth Health Service.

That person will be tasked with answering incoming calls and questions, with the aim of reducing the chance that students will be routed to voicemail when they’re seeking support.

In addition, the college is seeking to add two new counselors and a student wellness coordinator to expand mental health services for students.

The two counselors will be tasked with suicide prevention training and clinical capacity for individual therapy, while the student wellness coordinator will be focused on culture change and skill-building, particularly for students living on campus.

The college’s changes came as members of the school community were still processing the news of the unexpected death of Dartmouth freshman Elizabeth Reimer, of Long Island, N.Y., at her home on Wednesday. Reimer’s death came following two other deaths of freshman this school year: Beau DuBray from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota died by suicide on campus in November, and Connor Tiffany from Virginia died in Boston in March.

Additionally, Lamees Kareem, a junior from Saudi Arabia, died in April of a medical condition not related to COVID-19.

Kerin Mickenberg, the parent of a Dartmouth senior, said she and other parents have been upset by the deaths and concerned about students’ isolation amid the COVID-19 restrictions.

“It’s been pretty awful,” she said.

Though she said the changes the college announced on Friday may be “too late,” she welcomed them.

Administrators “seemed to be addressing it head-on,” she said. “They seem to be paying attention.”

About 30 friends and classmates of Reimer’s held a vigil on the Dartmouth Green on Friday evening, placing candles before a trifold board with photographs of her. They declined to comment.

Other students were also on the Green, which has become a prime outlet for students in the pandemic.

“We definitely need to have conversations about what we need to do next but we also need to make sure we don’t forget that a student just lost their life,” said Darren Nelson, a Dartmouth sophomore who said he didn’t know Reimer personally.

The college has scheduled a candlelight vigil for the Dartmouth community on Tuesday at 8 p.m. on the Green.

The bells in Baker Tower will chime each hour from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. that night in memory of the four students who have died this school year and to recognize other losses.

The administrators urged members of the community to “care for one another,” by checking in on friends and colleagues.

If you or someone you know might be at risk for suicide, contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

Unemployment payments
Early end to federal unemployment benefits pushes some toward brink

Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision to end federal unemployment benefits three months early has parents like Sherry Pratt in a panic.

She lost her $60,000-a-year job when COVID-19 hit and hasn’t found work that would allow her to stay home with her special needs daughter every time the pandemic closes school or an aide quits.

“I can’t take a job until I can hire somebody to be with my daughter,” Pratt said. “And I can’t hire somebody until I get a job.”

Sununu is one of at least 21 governors to announce the end of all federal unemployment benefits with a goal of filling some of an estimated 15,000 job openings in the state. That will not only end the $300 weekly federal benefit for anyone collecting unemployment on June 19, but also push nearly 15,700 Granite Staters off all unemployment aid. Sununu said he is also offering $500 or $1,000 cash bonuses to anyone who gets off unemployment, finds a job, and keeps it for at least eight weeks.

Both moves have been cheered by business owners across the state. One of them is Daniel Masera who has owned Plymouth Ski and Sports for 30 years and says he can’t compete with the $300 weekly federal unemployment payments.

“I’m down to one-and-a-half employees when I should have 11 to 15,” Masera said. Unless that changes, he’ll have to scale back his boating business this summer. “I have been placing ads in Indeed and not one click. I hope this spurs some people into action.”

Sununu’s announcement has also enraged and worried advocates whose clients are at the edge of a financial cliff and soon to lose all their income.

In his announcement, Sununu focused on the additional $300 paid to all 35,000 people collecting state or federal unemployment in New Hampshire. What wasn’t explained is that ending all federal benefits means that nearly 15,700 people who are collecting other federal unemployment benefits will receive nothing after June 19. This group does not qualify for state benefits and includes the self-employed; gig workers; people who’ve left work for a COVID-19-qualifying reason, such as caring for a child; and those who’ve collected the maximum 26 weeks of state unemployment.

Only the approximately 19,100 people receiving state unemployment will continue to receive payments, which average $277 a week but can range from $32 to $427 a week.

Dawn McKinney, policy director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said Sununu’s decision to end federal benefits 11 weeks early disregards the most vulnerable. She estimates individuals and families will lose $11.4 million in assistance they would have received if Sununu didn’t cut it short.

“While some Granite Staters may have recovered financially from the pandemic, many others have not,” she said. “Prematurely ending the 100 percent federally funded unemployment programs will hurt the families who can least afford it.”

Economists have also called it shortsighted because those federal dollars, which account for most of the unemployment aid, go back into the local economy. As of May, the state has paid out $1.86 billion in unemployment. Only $330 million has been with state money. The $300 weekly payment (which was $600 until July 2020) has brought $1 billion to the state. The other two federal programs ending early have brought $328 million for those who don’t qualify for state unemployment and $65.2 million for people who’ve used all 26 weeks of state unemployment.

According to a U.S. Census survey, just over 15 percent of New Hampshire respondents said in April that it has been somewhat or very difficult to pay for usual household expenses. Research by the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute found women have seen more job losses and challenges re-entering the workforce than men. And low-wage workers, the least likely to have savings, have been hit the hardest with job loss. Since the pandemic, employment in that group has dropped nearly 29 percent, while employment among middle-wage workers earning between $27,000 and $60,000 is down 7.4 percent. Only the highest paying jobs have increased since the pandemic.

These same factors are often cited by the 4,600 members of N.H. Unemployment During COVID-19 Facebook group who say unemployment is their only option right now. If they can find day care, they can’t find a job that pays enough to afford it. They are caring for someone who is sick or at serious risk of dying from COVID-19. Or the job isn’t a good match because they don’t have the skills needed or the stamina required.

In an analysis of its job postings nationwide, ZipRecruiter found that the top companies hiring are the ones that pay lower wages and are less likely to offer insurance benefits: Uber, Dollar Tree, Uber Eats, DoorDash, Domino’s, and McDonald’s.

Stephanie McKay, administrator of the Facebook group, said she sees similar job openings in New Hampshire and couldn’t take any of them.

Her kids have been in remote school all year, and she is caring for her 83-year-old father with health problems. She’s vaccinated but still worries about bringing COVID-19 home to her father, and her middle-schooler has developed such severe anxiety, McKay is worried about leaving her alone. She could take a job that would allow her to work remotely but hasn’t found one.

“I see jobs but they are seasonal jobs or in the trades,” she said. “How do you get ahead?”

Mike Somers, CEO and president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said his members have seen the same obstacles.

Ending unemployment benefits will bring some back to work, he said. But child care challenges and health risks for those who can’t get a vaccine will take longer to resolve. The travel and tourism industry has also been hurt by federal limits on visas for foreign workers. He said one employer who usually gets 25 workers from overseas is getting only eight this year. The association is focused on promoting jobs through job fairs, including one for the White Mountain area Tuesday.

The Common Man Family is hoping flexible work schedules and above-minimum wages will help fill 60 to 80 jobs across its 15 restaurants and seasonal venues. Chief Operations Officer Sean Brown said hiring has been challenging for the past two years but has gotten worse since the pandemic. “It’s very hard to find the right person that you want representing your brand, to find someone with the hospitality gene,” he said.

The Business and Industry Association and the New Hampshire Retail Association are on the other end of the unemployment challenge and lobbied Sununu to end the federal unemployment early.

“I’ve had a major retailer say to me that in the 35 years he’s been working in retail, he’s never seen anything like this,’ ” said Nancy Kyle, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Retail Association. “Retailers and restaurants are closing some days and tailoring back their hours because they can’t hire help. Whatever we can do to get people back to work will be welcome by retailers.”

Kyle said employers are offering incentives they’ve not needed before, including signing bonuses, referral rewards to employees who recruit new workers, and flexible hours.

“Employees can pretty much ask for anything and there’s a big chance they’d get it,” Kyle said.

ZipRecuiter found that more employers on its site are even offering “pet perks,” such as pet-friendly offices or paid pet insurance and grooming services. In the past three years, the number of job postings mentioning pet benefits has gone from 1.1 in 10,000 to 5.4 in 10,000, it reported.