For the past two years, zoning has been an issue in Peterborough. And the natives are restless.
The nature of zoning is such that everyone wants the protections it provides, until it keeps them from doing something they want to with their property. And every limit placed or removed has an effect that benefits someone, while adversely affecting others.
In 2018, the town planning board proposed an extensive rewrite of the zoning code. Dubbed Zoning Amendment C, it would have replaced 10 existing zoning districts, two of them overlay districts, with five new ones, to simplify the code. It was a good plan, but being complex, it failed miserably.
Last spring, a counter-proposal was offered by a group calling itself Citizens for Sensible Zoning, backed by some members of the town zoning board. Zoning Amendment 15, put on the ballot by petition, would primarily have changed downtown zoning to require larger lot sizes and prohibit multi-family development. Proponents said its aim was to preserve historic buildings and open spaces that make the downtown enjoyable. Opponents said the current zoning allows denser development downtown to keep it out of other areas.
In response to the measure, opponents, including at least one planning board member, put forth a petition article to require Zoning Amendment 15 face a higher hurdle to pass: a two-thirds majority, instead of the usual simple majority. At town meeting in May, the amendment got a majority, but not the two-thirds, so it failed.
That selectmen allowed the petition raising the bar infuriated some, including Christopher Maidment, who’s now circulating his own petition: to do away with the planning board.
The planning board is tasked to review all site plans and subdivisions and draft the community’s master plan, which guides local development. It can also propose zoning amendments that appear on the ballot for town meeting.
State law allows a town to abolish its planning board. It also allows that board’s duties to be assigned to the selectmen, though that’s not what’s being proposed here.
According to N.H. RSA 673:19: “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. Existing zoning ordinances remain in effect for no longer than two years from this date; during this two-year period, no amendment to the zoning ordinance is permitted that would require action by the former planning board.”
In short, doing away with the board would halt any change in Peterborough’s zoning or land-use regulation for two years, at which point there would be no such restrictions or guidance, save what state and federal law call for.
The state Office of Strategic Initiatives recommends against abolishing a planning board. Michael A. Klass, principal planner for the office’s Division of Planning, says the effect would likely be that local land-use controls would disappear, allowing building anywhere in town, so long as it adheres to other codes and regulations.
Some communities in New Hampshire do have no zoning. Lempster is the closest. There, no distinctions exist between commercial, residential and industrial areas. A development of any kind can be located anywhere in the town, though still subject to the state’s building regulations, water protections, etc.
In Peterborough, which bills itself as “A Good Place to Live,” allowing industrial development right next to a sensitive waterway in a quaint residential area would appear to undermine that motto.
“I would fully expect there to be some unintended consequences given the central role that planning and zoning play in modern community development,” Klass told The Sentinel.
Of course, the town might, during that two-year halt, put in place new land-use measures and — subject to state law — determine who would adjudicate those regulations. But achieving that would require the type of cooperation that the present petition shows doesn’t exist at the moment. If voters can’t even agree on how best to preserve the town’s character while allowing for needed development, how could they be expected to agree to a wholesale revamping of the town’s zoning and oversight?
Being upset that zoning changes didn’t go your way is understandable. And there are remedies, albeit slow-moving ones. Mounting opposition to the board members when they come up for re-election, for example, would be a reasonable step. Researching and offering your own proposed zoning measure would be appropriate.
Effectively declaring “Off with their heads!” is, in addition to being unlikely to succeed, a short-sighted and petulant response that may well prove rife with unintended consequences. For one, imagine how eagerly developers would greet the lack of oversight that would ensue if the board is abolished and existing regulations go poof.
It also won’t solve the underlying tension between residents who have competing visions of what the town ought to be moving forward and how best to get there. It’s not the fact that the town has a planning board that’s the problem. Disagreements between the people involved need to be hashed out.