PETERBOROUGH — It’s known as “Our Town.” But residents don’t necessarily agree on what their town should look like.
In recent years, a series of zoning votes has led to debates over development, density and the preservation of neighborhood character. The most recent chapter came this spring, with a battle over a citizen-proposed amendment that would have rolled back some previously passed measures that allow for denser housing in some areas.
Now, the Peterborough Board of Selectmen is asking everyone to take a step back.
This month, the board announced an initiative meant to get community feedback, build consensus around housing policy and, ultimately, write that consensus into the town’s master plan.
“We want to take this opportunity to really engage the whole community as deeply as we can about what the direction needs to be, and what people most value and care about,” said Select Board member Karen Hatcher, who proposed the project.
Hatcher said the last several years of zoning debates have left the town divided and stalled progress on housing issues. She hopes a fresh approach can break through.
“We’ve been growing for the last 10 years,” she said of the town of about 6,500. “And that comes with pressures, right, to be able to create housing opportunities that meet various needs, including those of young families, those who are retiring out of big houses, those who are single and maybe need apartments.”
The first step is creating a task force to shepherd the process over the next 18 months. Hatcher, who plans to chair the task force, said the board is seeking a diverse panel that includes a mix of skills, experiences and demographics.
The board is taking applications until the end of the day Friday. Information on how to apply can be found on the town’s website, townofpeterborough.com.
After selecting a consultant to help, the task force will hold a series of sessions meant to engage the community on big-picture topics. Hatcher envisions the sessions as large group conversations with hundreds of people, breaking into smaller groups for more intimate discussions.
The next phase involves smaller meetings focused on the character and needs of different neighborhoods, Hatcher said.
“What we hope to have as a result of all of that,” she said, “is the meat of the brand-new housing chapter for the master plan.”
That chapter would then inform any future zoning amendments, she said.
“What we would hope would happen is that the zoning changes that are put forward are so representative of what the community has said it wants that we’re not going to run into these split decisions,” she said.
The select board is asking the planning board and residents to refrain from proposing any new zoning amendments next year, so the engagement process can run its course, Hatcher said.
Meanwhile, the fight over this year’s voter-submitted amendment has not ended.
Earlier this year, a group of residents proposed Zoning Amendment 15, which would have repealed a zoning overlay district passed in 2017 and made changes to another passed in 2014.
In proposing those districts, the planning board aimed to encourage greater density and additional housing in and around the more developed parts of town.
But some residents feel the overlay zones allow for too much density and threaten the character of existing residential neighborhoods. Amendment 15, which the planning board opposed, would have reversed some of the measures allowing greater density.
The amendment received a majority of votes at the polls in May — but failed to pass. Before the vote, enough landowners in the affected neighborhoods had signed protest petitions to raise the required threshold to a two-thirds majority.
Proponents of the failed amendment are now challenging the protest petitions’ validity in Hillsborough County Superior Court.