Legislative panel backs developers over zoning changes

Every planning board does it or feels tempted to do it now and then: hold up a big subdivision project or box store, then kill it with a zoning amendment.

A legislative conference committee took just two minutes May 16 in agreeing to a bill that gives developers vesting rights as soon as their planning board sends out a notice to abutters.

Rep. Betsey Patten, R-Moultonborough, who sponsored House Bill 1508, said the amended bill protects those businesses from zoning changes that target a specific project.

“They’ll be vested up to 12 months,” she said.

Currently applicants win these grandfathering rights only when a board accepts a plan as complete.

Lawmakers heard testimony from half a dozen developers this session who had spent a lot of money for designs and engineering, only to see a plan rendered unbuildable after a zoning amendment inspired by that one project.

Paul Morin, a developer with Tarkka Homes and a planning board member, knows the issue from both sides. In his House testimony, he said his board approved a developer’s six-lot subdivision after citizens launched a petition drive for a zoning change that won approval at town meeting, and the developer filed a lawsuit now before the Supreme Court.

“His considerable investment has been in limbo for four years,” Morin said. “Even a planning board favorably disposed to the applicant could not prevent an abuse of law meant to delay and prevent this development.”

Attorney Cordell Johnston of the New Hampshire Municipal Association initially opposed the bill as shifting the pendulum too far in favor of builders.

“The developers have a legitimate concern,” he said. “I’ve heard of planning boards unreasonably stringing applicants along. We agree that shouldn’t happen. We’ll have to see if it becomes a problem in the other direction.”

Eric Taylor, a lobbyist for the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of New Hampshire, said the problem has been growing as a towns cope with population pressure.

“We heard from a developer who had spent $250,000 before the zoning changed,” he said.

That was Amherst developer David Fraser, who had planned a 130-acre subdivision, but ran into costly delays. So did developer Robert Meissner of DHB Inc., who said he encountered holdups with the Concord Planning Board. A new growth management ordinance scuttled his plans, he told lawmakers.

In written testimony, Concord Planning Director Roger Hawk warned the bill in its initial form would grandfather “even the most ill-conceived development concept.”

The first version of the bill protected a plan as soon as it had been “considered for acceptance.” – CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS

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