Towns prepare for NH’s work-force housing law

With the state’s new work-force housing law taking effect in July, some towns are pushing ahead to meet the new requirements.

But some towns just won’t have it all figured out.

The law says towns must provide the opportunity for developers to build work-force housing – defined in the Nashua region as a home selling for no more than $262,000 or a rental unit priced at $1,180 a month – in more than half of its residential areas.

There also must be some place in town allowing multifamily housing with at least five dwelling units.

Small towns scrambling Mason, with only about 1,300 residents, hired the Nashua Regional Planning Commission to help it navigate the new law, but the town’s leaders haven’t had time to thoroughly review the options, NRPC planner Kerrie Diers said.

As a result, Mason won’t be putting an ordinance on the ballot this year, Diers said.
“Mason really needs more time to decide how their community can best respond to the law,” Diers said. “Even communities that have their own planners are in the same dilemma.”

Mont Vernon, another small town, may need more time, too.

Volunteers Mike Fimbel and David R. Hall, Mont Vernon’s representatives on the NRPC, are analyzing the town’s current zoning and comparing it to the law’s requirements – in their spare time.

When they’ve finished, they’ll present their recommendations to the planning board. But there’s no guarantee it will be in time for residents to vote on it this year. It’s possible that Mont Vernon might already meet the law’s requirements, Fimbel said.

>>LOCAL ZONING ROUNDUP<< Mont Vernon allows certain kinds of “in-law” apartments, which offer some opportunity for housing at those prices, Fimbel said. It also has a large mobile home park. If those existing housing opportunities aren’t enough to put Mont Vernon in compliance with the law, the possible consequence is that a developer could sue for the right to do a work-force housing project of his own design. But that may not be a likely scenario in the current economy, Fimbel said. “There’s a sense that there’s not going to be a whole lot of building going on real soon anyway,” said Fimbel, whose garage door business is tied to the construction industry. In Lyndeborough, things are on the same schedule. “We’re in the process of reviewing the requirements and seeing what we can work in with appropriate warrant articles for this year’s town meeting,” Selectmen’s Chairman Andy Roeper said. “There’s quite a bit of groundwork that needs to be done when dealing with this. It’s not a trivial issue.” Ballot questions

Amherst is close to meeting the requirements, thanks to an affordable-housing ordinance already on the books, planning director Charlie Tiedemann said.

Normally, 2 acres is required for a single-family home in Amherst. But in affordable housing developments, each house may sit on as little as three-quarters of an acre, as long as the house is part of a group of homes on 4 acres.

If developers aren’t allowed to build on smaller lots, then usually it isn’t feasible for them to sell the house at a work-force housing price; the land alone would cost too much for that to be possible.

Building eight multifamily units on 4 acres is also allowed under Amherst’s affordable-housing provision.

“The affordable-housing ordinance has been used (by developers) several times since I’ve been on the planning board . . . and that’s resulted in less expensive units,” planning board Chairman Arnie Rosenblatt said.

Still, the ordinance will have to be tweaked to ensure that it complies with the state’s Work-Force Housing Law, Tiedemann said.

The new proposed ordinance will be presented at a public hearing at the board’s meeting Jan. 14 at 7:30 p.m..

Brookline, which obtained a state grant to hire a work-force housing planning consultant, will have a new ordinance on the ballot for voters to decide on this spring.

The draft ordinance was scheduled to be presented at a public hearing Tuesday by the planning board and consultant Jerry Coogan.

The ordinance would allow multifamily housing along Route 13 in Brookline.

Throughout the residential-agricultural district, it would allow work-force housing developments to put more homes on a smaller space.

Instead of the usual lot size of nearly 2 acres, homes could be built on as little as three-quarters of an acre, as long as soil conditions permit. The developer would have to designate at least 50 percent of the homes as work-force housing.

After planners incorporate any feedback from the public, voters will decide in March whether to adopt the new ordinance.

Hollis is on track to put a work-force housing ordinance to a town vote this spring, as well.

The ordinance, prepared by Hollis planner Mark Fougere, would allow more rental housing above commercial space in Hollis’ downtown zone than is currently allowed.

It would also amend the Hollis Open Space Planned Development rules to allow denser clusters of homes throughout the town’s largest district, the residential-agricultural zone.

The town would allow 30 percent more homes to be built in the cluster, provided the additional homes were work-force housing.

The ordinance would also promote work-force housing in the conversion of older homes to four-family buildings (currently allowed in some districts), only if one of the units is designated as work-force housing.

These units wouldn’t qualify as multifamily housing under the state work-force housing statute because multifamily housing must contain at least five units. To meet that requirement of the new law, Hollis’ ordinance also would create a multifamily zone at Route 111 and 111A, the southeast corner of the town.

“That’s best because there’s potential access to water there,” Fougere said.

Zoning for higher-density housing can be challenging in towns like Hollis that lack public water and sewer systems because lot size is partially determined by state rules governing septic systems.

Planners can’t override wastewater rules in order to increase density, Fougere said.

“If you’re polluting the groundwater and relying on a well, that kind of creates a problem for you,” Fougere said.

But where the right conditions exist, community septic systems and tighter spaces for individual septic systems can work.

“The community has to identify places where that might be possible,” said Stephen Williams, executive director of the NRPC.

Already OK?

Municipalities with at least some public water and sewer can allow denser housing and may have more options for meeting the work-force housing requirements.

In fact, some communities probably already meet the requirements, Williams said.

“In Nashua, those opportunities are already in place,” Williams said. “Milford, in all likelihood Merrimack, have enough opportunities for work-force housing that they probably don’t have a problem. Hudson, perhaps, as well.”

Milford planning director Bill Parker has tentatively come to the same conclusion.

“We’re fairly confident that the zoning already complies with what the state wants,” Parker said.

“We allow multifamily, we allow cluster development and we allow it in all the residential areas of town.”

Milford won’t put a work-force housing ordinance on the ballot this year.

In Merrimack, as in Milford, planners are working on a long-term housing vision as part of the town’s next master plan, planning assistant Steve Laurin said.

Some areas of Merrimack have water and sewer, as well as smaller minimum lot sizes. There are also provisions for cluster development that may allow for work-force housing.

“Both of those allow for higher density,” Laurin said. “And Merrimack does have a large number of multifamily houses.”

Merrimack doesn’t plan to implement any changes by July, Laurin said.

“It’s possible there would be no need,” he said.

Hudson officials want to take a closer look at the law, but they won’t have time to put an ordinance on the ballot this year.

However, there may be no need for changes, as the town already has plenty of affordable housing opportunities, town planner John Cashell said.

Hudson already allows multifamily development in its business zone. And the minimum lot sizes in two districts covering half of the town are 2 acres and 1 acre, but the town allows a 50 percent reduction of that size for “open space developments.”

“Hudson has been progressive with this particular issue of affordable housing,” Cashell said. “We’ve really looked at affordable housing as an important demographic. It’s important to allow young families and people that need affordable housing to obtain it.”

Many questions

The complex nature of the issue – and the new law – means that even in towns with diverse housing options, planners aren’t entirely sure they meet the requirements.

“One of the questions that came up when this was introduced was, How do we know when we’ve crossed the finish line?” said Fougere, the Hollis planner.

And what will happen if towns don’t meet the requirements?

Williams, of the NRPC, thinks the most likely scenario is this: A developer proposes a work-force housing project but finds it isn’t feasible because of local zoning restrictions that increase his costs.

If the town insists on the restrictions, then the developer could go to court and possibly win a ruling waiving some of the restrictions.

“I don’t think it’s going to be widespread,” Williams said. “I think a few communities are going to be hit with this stuff, and what happens there will kind of establish what happens everywhere else. That’s kind of the pattern when the law changes.”

In fact, that’s how the law came about in the first place.

A 1991 state Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit involving the town of Chester put the issue on lawmakers’ radar.

Since 1996, several work-force housing bills have been introduced, although the measure passed last year was the first successful effort.

While the new law doesn’t have any mechanism for the state to compel communities to comply with the law, it does say developers appealing a community’s regulations are entitled to a hearing in court within six months.

In Bedford, planning board member Chris Riley said at the board’s Dec. 15 meeting that he believed Bedford might be one of the communities that could face a court challenge if it fails to pass a work-force housing ordinance.

Bedford’s proposed ordinance would allow higher-density cluster developments throughout its residential areas and more multifamily housing in areas with public water and sewer.

Board members said they hoped voters would understand the importance of Bedford’s ordinance and approve it on the March ballot, on which they’ll see it after public hearings in January.

“Because that’s the other kicker here, is that you can propose ordinance changes, but who knows if the voters will approve them or not?” Williams said.

“And then, what do you do? I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that.”

But if towns succeed, and diverse affordable housing results, there can be a real benefit, Williams said.

“The communities that people want to be associated with are diverse,” Williams said. “They have different sorts of housing, different gathering places, they have areas that are highly dense, walkable, very social.”

Parker, Milford’s planning director, has started to observe that phenomenon.

The old attitude that Milford bears too much of the affordable-housing burden is fading, he said.

“I think that’s changing,” Parker said. “People are looking at Milford as more of a little hub, a nice, diverse area.”

Businesses might also be drawn to communities where employees making lower wages can afford to live nearby, Williams said.

“Nashua is another community that flourishes,” Williams said, “because they’re providing the whole spectrum of housing and opportunities.”

Wendy DePuy can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 27, or