Bills would change planning boards’ power

A New Hampshire House committee heard testimony Tuesday on two bills that would dramatically shift the balance of power among landowners, developers and town planning and zoning officials.

House Bill 1508 would grandfather a building project under existing town rules from the moment the planning board begins to review it. Municipal planners oppose the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Betsey Patten, R-Moultonborough.

Under the measure, any building project would be grandfathered under existing rules once it has been “considered for acceptance” by the planning board. Planners currently have to formally accept a project before it can be grandfathered. They control how soon the accept it, and current law lets the eventual zoning change take force retroactive to the day the town announces its intent to place the issue before voters.

HB 1508 would remove what developers of large projects in particular have seen as a stumbling block in their plans.

But Cordell Johnston, lobbyist for the Municipal Association, said the phrase “considered for acceptance” is too vague and opens the door wide for an incomplete and hurried application just to beat a the clock on a zoning change.

At the Tuesday hearing, several developers told of horror stories of costly delays For instance, Ara Aftandilian, a principal of Summit Properties in Massachusetts, has filed suit against Plymouth over a proposed zoning change that would block a mall he hopes to build there. The Lowe’s retail chain seeks to be one of his occupants.

Robert Meissner, a Londonderry-based builder, said a town near Concord stalled his plans for 180 house lots until the zoning changed. He had spent thousands for engineering. Now he’s allowed to build five homes per year.

“The project was allowed under the original zoning, but the change killed it,” Meissner said.

Tim Bernier, a planning consultant, said his clients face great uncertainty when they go before a town regulatory board.

“We get paid to submit plans. Then we get paid to submit new ones,” he said. “We’re trying to create fairness with the bill.”

Gilford held up a 722-unit housing division for more than a year until the housing market crashed in 1987 and developer Milo Pike scrapped plans for the project.

Londonderry planners kept two big box stores from being constructed at Exit 5 off Interstate 93 two years ago. At the well-attended first conceptual meeting, town officials announced their plans to change the zoning along Route 28.

Patten said she filed HB 1508 at the request of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of New Hampshire, but she took no stand on it during committee deliberations.

“I would like you to listen to their testimony and then determine for yourselves whether a change is needed or not,” Patten said. “I believe that issues that cause angst to any segment of our population need to be aired so that resolution can be achieved.”

Meanwhile another bill, HB 1320, would crack down on zoning violators. Sponsored by David Buhlman, R-Hudson, it would punish offenders with heavy fines and require a judge to impose a mandatory fine of $275 per day for a first zoning violation. Current law allows a fine of no more than $275 per day, and judges often give softer penalties.

At the Tuesday hearing, Hudson Town Planner Sean Sullivan described his efforts to enforce town codes on three uncooperative property owners. One racked up $313,000 in potential fines, but a judge imposed $8,000, barely enough to cover the town’s legal costs.

“That was a slap on the wrist,” he said. “We need a deterrent.” — CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS SERVICE

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