State’s zoning policies decried as restrictive

New Hampshire is committing “economic suicide” with policies that are attracting older people and causing young families to flee, according to Peter Francese, one of the main speakers at the Feb. 12 Small Business Day at the State House.

Francese, co-author of a new book, “Communities and Consequences,” along with a Web site and upcoming video that will soon be broadcast on PBS, was making the case for workforce housing, one of the key priorities of the Business and Industry Association, which sponsored the morning conference along with the Small Business Development Corp. New Hampshire Business Review was media sponsor.

Francese – in a talk that some of the more than 100 participants described as “provocative” and “passionate” — attacked zoning laws that encourage affordable cluster housing in favor of large lots and retirement communities, arguing that the state is now tied with Florida as the sixth oldest in the nation, and has one of the fastest-growing population of other 65.

Only 20 years ago, New Hampshire used to be right in the middle demographically, said Francese, but that changed because of policies designed to “keep out the kids.”

“Somehow the perception of children as a precious resource has been transformed to that of an intolerable financial burden,” he said.

The perception, he said, was false.

“Your taxes are not your children’s fault,” he said.

While education budgets are going up, that is not because the number of kids is increasing. Indeed, he said, the school-age population has been shrinking. Rising educational budgets are due to a number of factors, including the fact that New Hampshire has a top-heavy administrative burden because of the sheer number of smaller school districts.

“Many states’ school districts are the size of counties,” he said. “Ours is the size of postage stamp.”

Part of that is that New Hampshire loves local control, but “while every town would like to have its own school district, we can’t afford it.”

Francese saved much of his verbal firepower for those who “blame kids” for their increasing property taxes, who even use conservation and open space “as a weapon” to keep them out of the community.

Municipalities tie up housing developments in the planning process for years, driving up the cost beyond the reach of most working families, while clearing the deck for adults-only communities, where housing is relatively affordable.

As fewer and fewer families remain in the state, school budgets have a tougher time.

About two-thirds of households don’t have children, yet it takes two-thirds to pass a bond issue for a new school, so “you have two-thirds with no interest in education deciding the education of the one third who are. You are stacking the deck against the kids,” said Francese.

Yet the same voters who pass such restrictive zoning laws also vote for hefty property tax breaks for senior citizens. That – in addition to the higher health-care cost that is absorbed by the rest of the population – outweighs the cost of educating children, which is primarily a fixed cost anyway.

Younger families also contribute more to the economy by working and spending more than older people. That’s why businesses are so interested in attracting that demographic to the state.

But the state, which only seven years ago was gaining 2,000 people a month, is now losing 200 a month — primarily young families.

Earlier, Thomas Horgan, president of the New Hampshire College and University Council, used Francese’s figures to show the declining demographic of those kids entering college, noting the implications for both colleges and employers alike. He also outlined a number of college initiatives designed to keep young people in the state.

Gov. John Lynch, Senate President Sylvia Larsen, Senate Minority Leader Ted Gatsas and House Commerce Committee Chair Tara Reardon also addressed the conference and took questions from the audience, most of which focused on the high cost of health care.