RINDGE — Town voters will decide whether to eliminate an affordable-housing incentive, among other zoning changes, at town meeting this year after the planning board endorsed the measures Tuesday night.
At a public hearing plagued by audio issues, the seven-member board recommended that voters adopt six amendments to the municipal zoning ordinance. They also approved a controversial 59-unit development.
As an official-ballot community, Rindge residents will review this year’s warrant articles at a deliberative session scheduled for Jan. 31 before voting on them at the polls in March. Zoning changes cannot be revised during the deliberative session, however, since their language is settled at the final planning board meeting, according to Planning Director Kirk Stenersen.
Stenersen opened Tuesday’s hearing — held in a room of masked and unmasked residents at the Rindge Recreation Department — with a presentation of the draft zoning measures.
Perhaps the most significant amendment backed by the planning board Tuesday would restrict housing density on tracts of land with multiple residences — formally known as proposed unit residential developments, or PURDs.
The town’s existing PURD regulation states that it’s intended to “promote the most efficient use of land” by “encouraging a less sprawling form of development.”
Rindge already restricts PURDs to tracts with at least 10 acres, authorizing one residence for every 2 acres or for every 1.5 acres of “developable” land. However, the town also allows developments with workforce housing — units with an affordable monthly rent, based on the median income in Cheshire County — to exceed those density restrictions by up to 30 percent.
That exception would be eliminated by the proposed amendment, which would also limit PURDs to four zoning districts: Residential, Residential-Agricultural, Village and College. (Currently, they are not explicitly prohibited in any districts.)
The density bonus for workforce-housing projects, which Rindge adopted in 2009 to comply with a state law requiring municipalities to offer “reasonable and realistic opportunities” for affordable developments, has been criticized frequently by residents in recent years. A 2020 report by the independent state agency N.H. Housing found that just 23 percent of two-bedroom rental units statewide were available at affordable rates, though that figure was 49 percent in Cheshire County.
Earlier this year, the Rindge planning board convened a subcommittee with two of its members, a selectboard member and multiple residents to review the town’s PURD regulations. At the subcommittee’s preliminary meeting in September, residents called the workforce-housing exception unnecessary, given the town’s distance from large urban employers and said it is inviting “suburban sprawl,” according to reporting by the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.
Planning Board Chairman Jonah Ketola said Tuesday afternoon he was “on the fence” about that measure because it could impose financial burdens on developers by dispersing construction efforts. In an interview after the hearing, he argued that Rindge already offers many affordable units, noting that workforce housing is often falsely conflated with publicly subsidized units.
“We have a lot of entry-level workforce housing already,” he said.
Municipal staff were notified multiple times Tuesday night that the nearly 20 people attending via Zoom could not hear the discussion. Still, they did not require speakers to stand near the microphone, making the proceedings functionally inaccessible and, according to one frustrated resident, a “public non-hearing.”
Ketola said the planning board has never had audio issues at past meetings and attributed the issue to a new computer and standalone microphone that he said the town purchased recently. It previously used another computer and the built-in microphone, he explained.
“We tried to do our best,” he said of the technical issues.
The planning board also recommended several other housing-related amendments for adoption — all of which, Ketola said, were products of the planning board subcommittee’s proposed regulatory changes.
One measure would allow only one residence per property in the Residential and Residential-Agricultural districts, effectively prohibiting multi-unit developments there. They are not currently listed under permitted uses in the Residential district and can be approved in the Residential-Agricultural district only by special exception from the town.
The board also backed provisions capping multi-unit dwellings as well as moderate and high-density housing — defined as buildings with more than two and three units, respectively — at six units.
And it endorsed allowing accessory dwelling units, which are “secondary and subordinate” residences on the same property as a single-family home, in the College zoning district and detached from the primary residence. They are currently permitted by special exception in the Residential, Residential-Agricultural and Village districts.
All six proposed amendments, plus a slight revision of the town’s zoning map concerning a property currently bisected by different districts, will bear the planning board’s endorsement when they go before voters for final approval.
Lori Rautiola, executive assistant to the selectboard, said Wednesday morning that board members have not yet finalized COVID-related protocols for the Jan. 30 deliberative session. As of now, she said, residents will be able to watch the proceedings virtually but must attend in-person to vote.
Rindge town meeting is scheduled for March 9.
Also on Tuesday, the planning board approved a controversial 59-unit development to be built on 110 acres off of Route 119. The project would include 23 single-family homes and 36 multi-family residences — eight of which are proposed as workforce housing, according to a Dec. 30 memorandum from Stenersen, the planning director.
Several residents voiced opposition to the development, which was initially proposed for 66 units, at a July 7 planning board meeting, saying it would be too big for Rindge, according to reporting by the Ledger-Transcript. The board approved it Tuesday by a 4–3 vote.