City staff unveiled last week a proposed ordinance requiring operational licenses for a variety of uses likely to allow overnight stays. The idea is to subject specific types of uses — boarding houses, homeless shelters, drug treatment clinics, residential substance treatment facilities, lodging houses, fraternity/sorority houses and residential care facilities — to an annual city operating license in addition to the conditional use permits they must already gain to be sited by the planning board.
According to the presentation before the City Council’s Planning, Licenses and Development committee, the idea had surfaced originally at a joint meeting of PLD and the planning board, while discussing the downtown zoning overhaul that’s been in the works for several years. What arrived before the PLD committee last week was a fully developed plan that was presented, received few questions or comments, and unanimously recommended to return to staff for tweaking, which the full City Council agreed to Thursday. It may well deserve approval, but there’s a big question that needs to be asked first, and answered publicly by the council.
To be clear, the proposal seems well thought out, and very detailed. But it will put what seems like a heavy burden on applicants. It calls for an “operations plan” to be submitted, but that plan must, itself, include: a security plan; life safety plan; staff training and procedures plan; health and safety plan; emergency response plan; building and site maintenance procedures; and, tellingly, a neighborhood relations plan.
We’d venture that’s a lot more than is asked of applicants for many other uses in the city. Why not an operations license for a “charitable” casino, a vape shop or an adult accessories store — all of which are, or ought to be, just as controversial?
Our question, which no one asked last week, is why?
Perhaps the hope is to remove the often-contentious issue of NIMBY-ism from the council’s purview, thereby de-politicizing it. If so, we’d point out there is a near-zero chance any applicant will accept an adverse decision from a licensing board when it knows it can then appeal directly to the council.
It’s no secret the city has struggled with siting some of these uses. The Hundred Nights shelter’s quest for larger space; the repeated denial of substance treatment facilities — it hasn’t been pretty. But we’d question whether this will help.
Senior Planner Tara Kessler told the PLD members one of the major drivers of the proposal is to create a separate licensing board in order to set up a better process for licensing. Now, those licenses the City Council issues, such as for street fairs and other events, are appealable to city staff — the city manager, police chief and clerk. That’s obviously not ideal, since those people work directly or indirectly for the council. The new board would be made up of members of the public, not staff or councilors, ideally, and the council would then handle appeals. That is indeed a much better system. But it could be enacted in any case, without adding a licensing requirement for these specific facilities.
It’s obviously not driven by money. The $175 annual application fee isn’t a deterrent, and likely won’t cover the cost of staff reviewing the applications. In fact, one could argue it’s going to cost the city to do this, in that regard. It also creates one more venue for potential legal action, itself a cost driver.
Why is the city looking to add a layer of bureaucracy to facilities that are, largely, already required to seek licenses or certifications from the state — or, in the case of lodging houses, which include fraternity houses, the city? Why is it necessary when the planning board already requires many of the same issues to be vetted as part of the conditional use process?
And most importantly, why enact such an ordinance, which is guaranteed to further the impression that Keene is “anti-business” and “anti-development,” as part of a zoning overhaul that officials have repeatedly stated is largely intended to combat that impression?
Yes, it might clean up some zoning inefficiencies, but not so much that it seems likely worth the potential downsides. Lacking a fuller explanation of the need, it feels more like an answer in search of a problem. To potential applicants, it may seem more like a hammer in search of a nail.
We hope when this returns before the councilors, someone asks that question, and refuses to settle for a rote “zoning … opportunity … streamlining” answer that’s all about the process while ignoring the larger issues.