ALTON — An initiative to amend the zoning ordinance to bring the town into compliance with the state statute requiring municipalities "to provide reasonable and realistic opportunities for the development of workforce housing" was met with suspicion and hostility by a crowd of some 75 people, including a contingent from the Lakes Region Tea Party, that jammed the Gilman Museum Wednesday night.
The meeting was the first of two forums hosted as a community service by the Alton Business Association, which takes no position for or against the issue of workforce housing.
Voicing the mood in the room, State Rep. Jane Cormier (R-Alton) charged that the proposal reflected an effort by the federal government, through its Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), "to manipulate our local zoning law." Instead of complying with the law, she urged voters to send conservative representatives to Concord to repeal it, earning herself a round of thunderous applause.
After listening to similar sentiments for more than an hours, Tom Hoopes, vice-chairman of the Planning Board, rose to say "what we're doing here is planning. We don't have the tools to deal with a problem. This has nothing to do with HUD." His statement was met with cries of derision and a woman sitting nearby questioned whether he should be speaking for the Planning Board. "I'm speaking as an individual," he replied. "Sit down." From across the room a man shouted "you work for us, pal."
Hoopes reminded him, "I volunteer for you."
The statute was enacted in 2008, 17 years after the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that municipalities could not use zoning ordinances to deny reasonable opportunities to build affordable/workforce housing. The Legislature acted in response to a variety of interests, including representatives of the business community who claimed that a sufficient supply of affordable housing was necessary for commercial and industrial enterprises to attract and retain employees.
The law requires municipalities to provide opportunity to develop workforce housing in a majority of the land area zoned for residential use. Furthermore, a municipality may comply with the law if its existing housing stock represents its "fair share" of the regional need for workforce housing.
Steve Whitman of Jeffrey Taylor & Associates, the consultant hired to assist the Zoning Amendment Committee prepare a proposal, said that an inventory indicated that between 35-percent and 60-percent of the town's housing stock qualified as "workforce housing." He also noted that accessory apartments as well as manufactured and modular housing are permitted in most zones while multi-family dwellings are permitted in both residential commercial and residential rural districts.
However, Whitman noted the vast majority of Alton's 63-square-miles of land area is zoned rural, where house lots require a minimum of two acres and 200 feet of road frontage, effectively excluding workforce housing from most of the town. "This may never be an issue," he conceded, "but there is no way to ensure a developer won't claim he can't build housing at an affordable price point in the rural zone." Amending the zoning ordinance to comply with the state statute, he said, would ensure the town of an effective defense.
"Aren't we already complying?" asked one man, citing the share of affordable units in the current housing stock.
Without disagreeing, Whitman reminded him that the burden of proof would fall on the town and the notion of "fair share" is ambiguous.
"We should challenge the state to write a clear statute rather than change our zoning," the man replied.
Another man wanted to know how the services of Jeffrey Taylor & Associates were funded. Town Planner Ken McWilliams said that the town was awarded a $30,000 grant by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. The man asked where the agency got the money, "HUD?" When McWlliams replied "yes," the man said "and the last time I checked HUD is a federal agency."
Barbara Howard, a former member of the Budget Committee, asked who applied for the grant. "You're looking at him," said McWilliams, who added that Whitman helped write the application. McWlliams stressed that once the grant was awarded the consulting contract was put out to bid and two firms submitted bids.
"You mean you paid the man sitting next to you to write the grant he got the benefit of?" Cormier exclaimed.
A woman charged that HUD wants "to urbanize our beautiful rural areas," adding "I don't want Alton to become south Jersey where I moved from 34 years ago and I don't want to go back to, thank you."
A man from Meredith said that what was represented as workforce housing became subsidized housing. "Maybe you want to talk to those people," he suggested.
Whitman reminded the crowd that the zoning ordinance permits subsidized units in multi-family buildings.
"Is the Lakes Region Planning Commission involved in any way?" asked another man, obviously aware of the commission's role in the Granite State Future project that is hotly opposed by the Lakes Region Tea Party. McWilliams acknowledged that the town is a member of the commission, but insisted the commission plays no part in amending the zoning ordinance.
When asked how compliance with the statute would benefit the town, Whitman repeated that it would protect the town from litigation while "providing for a mix of housing at various price points."
Warning that workforce housing would add to the burdens on emergency services and public schools, one man said "they're like locusts. Once it starts it doesn't stop."
Cormier said that the statute was written by "insiders," developers and their lobbyists, for the benefit of "special interests. It's an insider deal, top to bottom," she declared. "It's not American."
The second forum will be held on Thursday, September 25 at the Gilman Museum beginning at 6 p.m. The featured speakers will be Ken Eyring of Windham, founder of the Southern New Hampshire 912 Group, who will explain how workforce housing is linked to the Granite State Future project and Cormier, who will discuss the role of the Lakes Region Planning Commission.