SB 342 is not the workforce housing answer

The Madbury Planning Board is concerned about Senate Bill 342 regarding workforce housing. This bill, recently passed by both House and Senate, would promote the development of workforce housing by establishing state-mandated zoning for all towns with zoning ordinances.

The bill’s purposes are commendable. The bill attempts to define “reasonable and realistic opportunities” for workforce housing and requires that towns provide same. As a volunteer who must interpret and apply local ordinance and state land-use law, this looks like a nightmare to me. We must police our efforts to promulgate laws and ordinances that provide “reasonable and realistic” direction for those who must implement them. Vague definitions invite unintended interpretations and unintended consequences. This bill will invite a great deal of litigation.

The bill refers to the “collective impact of all such [zoning] ordinances and regulations.” Madbury’s ordinances currently fill 67 pages. No one has ever analyzed them for their collective impact on workforce housing or anything else. Motivated developers will find “impacts” that impede their projects in any ordinance and use those interpretations to advance their interests through the courts.

“A municipality shall not fulfill the requirements of this section by adopting voluntary inclusionary zoning provisions that rely on inducements that render workforce housing developments economically unviable.” I don’t understand this sentence. Do you? I do know that I don’t want my town held responsible for the economic viability of any developer’s project.

The bill would require workforce housing to be allowed in the majority of residentially zoned areas. High densities are not appropriate in some areas of Madbury and probably not appropriate in parts of residential zones elsewhere. Madbury has one residential zone encompassing most of the town. If we don’t want workforce housing with its probable high density everywhere, we must rezone. This is not a trivial task.

“If a municipality’s existing housing stock is sufficient to accommodate its fair share of the current and reasonably foreseeable regional need for such housing, the municipality shall be deemed to be in compliance [with these requirements].” We are not told how to determine our “fair share.” Madbury may well meet this standard today but be found lacking at some future time with no way to know or predict our compliance.

This bill presumes that Madbury’s role in the region is to provide workforce housing just like every other town. Is that true? We see our regional priorities as water supply and green space. If you depend on Portsmouth or Dover public water supplies, some of your water came from Madbury’s aquifers or reservoir.

The bill would become effective in July 2009. Towns and cities have a year (one town meeting cycle in Madbury) to determine how to accommodate this law and adjust their zoning accordingly.

The fiscal note to this bill makes the bold statement: “There is no fiscal impact on county and local expenditures or state, county, and local revenue.” Really? Madbury must respond to this state-imposed rezoning. This will cost the “free” time of our volunteer town government and money for consultants needed to help us respond appropriately (a minor issue).

How can anyone possibly believe that the introduction of more high-density housing into our town will be without local expense?

Statistics tell us that the increase in school population (read “cost”) associated with added housing is much lower now than it was a decade ago. What will it be a decade hence? If we really want to promote workforce housing, we must eliminate the major fear of the majority of voters in Madbury and the region: fix the school-funding problem.

I’m sorry I don’t have a better solution to the problem of workforce housing. It is an important and immediate problem. This bill is not a good answer.

Robert Sterndale is chair of the Madbury Planning Board. This article originally appeared in the May 30 edition of Foster’s Daily Democrat.

Categories: Opinion