Alton Planning Department eyes changes needed to comply with state law requiring 'realistic' opportunity for workforce housing

ALTON — With a grant from the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority and guidance from Jeffrey H. Taylor & Associates of Concord, the Planning Department is preparing an amendment to the zoning amendment that would bring the town into compliance with the state statute "to provide reasonable and realistic opportunities for the development of workforce housing."

Town Planner Ken McWilliams said yesterday that he expects to present a draft to the Zoning Amendment Committee before the end of this month, a proposal to the Planning Board in November and a warrant article for Town Meeting in March. He said that in accordance with the terms of the grant an effort is underway to inform the public about the issue, adding that the Alton Business Association will host a public forum on Wednesday, September 18 at the Gilman Museum, beginning at 6 p.m.

McWilliams recalled that the issue was first broached in April 2012, when Ben Frost of the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority and Linda Harvey of the Laconia Area Community Land Trust spoke to some two dozen residents. "The reaction led me to believe that we had some education to do," he said.

The first step, McWilliams said, was to determine how closely the town's existing housing stock matched the standard for workforce housing as set by the statute. Housing for sale valued at $248,000 or less is considered "affordable" to those with the median income in Belknap County of a household of four, which is currently $69,000. Units renting for $930 per month are considered affordable to those with 60-percent of the median income of a household of three, which is currently $37,260.

After reviewing home values from 2005 to 2012, McWilliams said that a significant share of the housing stock, between 35-percent and 60-percent qualified as "workforce housing." However, he cautioned that the share of affordable units fluctuates with property values, which he noted have risen and fallen relatively significantly in recent years.

Moreover, McWilliams noted that accessory apartments are permitted in most zones and multi-famility dwellings are permitted in both residential commercial and residential rural districts. Manufactured and modular housing is also in most residential districts.

However, the vast majority of Alton's 63-square-miles of land is zoned rural, where house lots require a minimum of two acres and 200 feet of road frontage. Since the statute requires municipalities to provide for the development of workforce housing in the majority of its land area zoned for residential use, McWilliams said that the dimensional requirements in the rural district represent "the biggest hurdle to compliance."

McWilliams pointed out that one option was eliminated at Town Meeting in March when voters, by a margin of two-to-one, rejected a recommendation of the Planning Board to permit "conservation" or cluster subdivisions, which develop a portion of a parcel while leaving the remainder as open space. He pointed out cluster development lowers the cost of infrastructure — roads and utilities — and with it the price of the units. He said the Planning Board agreed not to reintroduce the proposal before 2015.

"The draft will address the issue of the rural zone," McWilliams said, anticipating that the proposal will spark lively debate among residents.