PETERBOROUGH — A town resident says he’s started a petition to abolish the Peterborough Planning Board, amid ongoing controversy about recent zoning-related measures.
Christopher Maidment said he began circulating the petition in the past several weeks and has a couple dozen signatures. At least 100 voters’ signatures are required for the petition to get on the ballot for town meeting in the spring.
“I’d like to see the question on the ballot,” Maidment said earlier this month. “I’d like to see what the voters think. I know there’s a lot of people upset over the same issues that I am.”
Maidment said he has been frustrated by recent actions of the planning board or individual members, including last year’s failed zoning overhaul proposal and the fallout this year over a citizen-submitted proposal to repeal certain recent zoning changes. That proposal, Amendment 15, won a majority at the polls, but was thwarted by a procedural measure that had raised the bar for approval to two-thirds.
Planning Board Chairman Dario Carrara declined to comment Monday, saying he hadn’t seen the petition to abolish the board.
Select Board Chairman Tyler Ward said he opposes the petition. “I think it’s a good idea to have a planning board in a town,” said Ward, who is the select board’s representative on the planning board. “You have a master plan and various committees that work towards the proper development of town.”
Among other functions, a planning board approves site plans and subdivisions and drafts the community’s master plan, which guides local development. It can also propose zoning amendments that appear on the ballot for town meeting. Peterborough’s board has six elected members plus one member representing the select board.
In New Hampshire, state law gives a town’s legislative body — i.e., voters at town meeting — the power to abolish the board.
“The effect of abolishing a planning board is that all land use control activities performed by the board will cease upon the effective date of the abolition,” guidance published by the N.H. Office of Strategic Initiatives says. “Existing zoning ordinances remain in effect for no longer than two years from this date,” and no zoning amendments can be made in those two years.
The state office strongly advises against taking such a step.
“OSI does not recommend that planning boards be abolished,” its guidance states in bold. “OSI strongly recommends that before any decision is made regarding the abolishment of a planning board, the board enlist the advice of their town attorney and other consultants to fully understand and appreciate the ramifications of abolishment.”
The statute that describes what happens upon abolition of a planning board is just two sentences. But it seems to mean that local land-use controls disappear and “one could build anything, anywhere,” so long as it doesn’t run afoul of a separate regulatory system like building codes or wetlands regulations, according to Michael A. Klass, principal planner for the office’s Division of Planning.
There’s not much precedent to clarify the process, because it rarely happens, according to Klass.
“It’s a bit of a mystery to me of how this process would resolve itself in the real world,” he said in an email, “and I would fully expect there to be some unintended consequences given the central role that planning and zoning play in modern community development.”
Klass said just two New Hampshire municipalities lack planning boards. Pittsburg abolished its planning board in 1994, he said. Clarksville also has no planning board, though Klass said he didn’t know the history there. The two towns neighbor one another in northern Coos County.
Maidment singled out three recent zoning issues motivating his petition effort.
Last year, the planning board proposed a zoning overhaul, which voters resoundingly rejected at the polls in May 2018. The measure would have consolidated some zoning districts and overlay zones and incorporated elements of form-based zoning, which focuses on allowable building types. Maidment said he felt the proposal went too far in regulating what people could build on their property.
This year, voters passed a zoning amendment that, among other changes, explicitly limits shooting ranges to indoor facilities. The Monadnock Rod and Gun Club, which owns an outdoor shooting range on Route 202, has protested that voters were not adequately informed that the measure would affect gun ranges.
This year has also seen the ongoing controversy over Zoning Amendment 15, which a group of citizens petitioned to put on the ballot this year.
The amendment would have abolished one newly created overlay district and modified another. The Peterborough Planning Board opposed it.
Before the vote in May, a number of property owners within or adjacent to the affected zones — including Planning Board Vice Chairwoman Ivy Vann — signed two protest petitions that resulted in the amendment requiring a two-thirds majority to pass. While the amendment won a slim majority of votes, it did not reach the threshold needed to pass.
Maidment cited Vann’s involvement in expressing frustration at the process. “The majority of the people in town wanted that,” he said. Vann did not respond to requests for comment.
“It seems like an extreme step,” Maidment said of his move to abolish the board. “But really it’s just about getting the say of the voters.”