High interest

More than two dozen people gathered in the Peterborough Town House for Tuesday’s selectboard meeting.

PETERBOROUGH — At a selectboard meeting Tuesday night, town officials affirmed the validity of two petitions from last month that changed the vote requirement on a controversial zoning amendment from a simple majority to a supermajority, which caused the amendment to fail at the polls.

But for proponents of the amendment, the matter is far from settled, with a potential court battle or rehearing looming.

More than two dozen residents gathered in the Peterborough Town House for Tuesday’s meeting, but most left after selectboard members announced they would not answer any questions from the public or comment on the zoning matter, citing the potential for a rehearing where they would be the adjudicators.

Confusion and frustration abounded on the steps of the downtown building as the meeting continued inside, with opponents of the petitions mulling their next move.

“We’re not going to let the decision stand,” said attorney Mark D. Fernald, who is representing residents in favor of the zoning amendment. “I guess the question is, do we appeal to the court, or do we ask for a rehearing? We have the option of doing both.”

Fernald said a potential rehearing or court challenge would contest the validity of the petitions. If the petitions are found to be invalid, the simple majority of votes cast in favor of the amendment last month would be sufficient to change the result.

Zoning amendment 15, submitted by a group of 44 residents, sought to alter town ordinances on two roughly overlapping areas that cover the downtown and some of its surroundings.

Both enacted within the past five years, the ordinances permit more densely placed housing in those areas, which some argue allows for more suitable housing options for younger families and millennials.

But advocates of the zoning amendment have argued the denser housing could lead to the demolition of historic buildings and change the character of the town.

On May 6, the town received two petitions seeking to raise the voting threshold on this amendment from a simple majority to a two-thirds vote. Selectmen discussed the petitions at the end of their meeting the next day, and then signed the notice allowing them to go into effect.

For a petition challenging a proposed zoning change — and requiring a two-third’s majority for its passage — to be valid, the signatories’ properties must account for at least 20 percent of the total acreage of the affected area, pursuant to RSA 675:5. It would also be valid if signatories’ properties represent at least 20 percent of the land across the street or within 100 feet of the area to be affected.

Owners of 31 properties in one of the zones in question signed one of the petitions, according to a memorandum released Tuesday by Town Administrator Rodney Bartlett, 24 of which meet the requirements under state law for the petition to be valid. Those 24 properties total to 58.73 acres, which passes the 20 percent acreage threshold.

The second petition was signed by an adjacent property owner whose parcel exceeds the threshold on its own, according to Bartlett’s memo.

On May 11, ahead of the vote, Fernald penned a letter to the town, arguing the petitions were not valid on procedural grounds.

The main issue, Fernald said Tuesday, is that the acreage under the zoning amendment is larger than one-third of the town’s total area, which is too big for a protest petition to be valid under RSA 675:5.

“It’s almost the whole town, so it’s not even close,” he said in a follow-up interview.

The petitions ultimately led to the amendment’s demise at the polls on May 14; with 778 in favor and 719 against, the amendment received more than 50 percent of the vote, but less than the required 66.7 percent super-majority.

Pro-amendment residents at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting said they’d expected it to bring some clarity to the situation after a May 17 news release from Bartlett. In the release, Bartlett announced that the town would review the signatures on both petitions and consult a lawyer, before presenting a report at Tuesday’s meeting.

Resident Sharon Monahan expressed dismay Tuesday at the lack of action.

“They didn’t say anything; they just read the letter from town administration,” Monahan said. “Which is really weird because they’re supposed to make the decision.”

On Wednesday, Fernald said he had not heard anything from Bartlett — who could not be reached for comment by The Sentinel — and had spoken only to town counsel, who had referred him to Bartlett’s memo.

“The memo is completely useless, and it’s full of jargon,” Fernald said. “... What are they trying to hide?”

Fernald did not give an indication of when a decision about whether to appeal may come, but reiterated that, despite Tuesday’s confusion, the fight to overturn the petitions is not over.

“It’s completely opaque as to what process they went through,” Fernald said of the town’s analysis. “... I suspect the selectmen are confused too.”

Jake Lahut can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or jlahut@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @JakeLahut.