ALTON — For the second time in as many weeks, more than 75 people crowded into the Gilman Museum on Wednesday night to voice their opinions, apprehensions and suspicions that an initiative to bring the town into compliance with a state statute requiring municipalities to provide opportunities to develop so-called workforce housing represents a sinister ploy by federal and state agencies to rewrite local zoning ordinances and trample private property rights.
"What I've not heard tonight is anything about the impact of workforce housing on Alton," said Bob Longabaugh as the meeting drew to a close.
"Workforce housing is part of a bigger picture," warned Ken Eyring of Windham, the featured speaker at the second of two forums hosted by the Alton Business Association. He explained that workforce housing is but one aspect of Granite State Future, a program funded and overseen by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) and managed by the nine regional planning commissions in the state.
Stressing that the program "bypasses our elected representatives," he said that it caters to those protected against discrimination by the federal Fair Housing Act, including racial, ethnic and religious groups as well as low and moderate income households. He cited a document from HUD that referred to developing strategies to "reduce or eliminate barriers" to fair housing, which included New Hampshire's "strong tradition of private property rights and hostility to planning and zoning."
Eyring noted that Alton accepted a grant from the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority (NHHFA), which in turn accepted funds from HUD under an agreement that authorizes HUD to "interpret" the results of the work funded by the grant. He claimed that the agreement between HUD and the NHHFA applies to Alton, which is subject to HUD's oversight.
Referring to establishment of regional planning commissions in 1969, State Rep. Jane Cormier (R-Alton) said that was when the federal government began influencing local planning decisions. The regional planning commissions, she continued, "are not about municipalities working together but are part of a much grander plan." Cormier spoke of federal agencies "bypassing our Legislature and going into our communities to change our zoning laws."
"Your representation in Concord is being usurped," Cormier declared, vowing to file legislation that would do away with regional planning commissions, which she described as "huge, bloated, corrupt" organizations. "Our zoning ordinance shouldn't be manipulated by anyone," she insisted. "It's definitely a local control issue."
A week earlier she called for repeal of the workforce housing statute and this week repeated "this has got to go."
Cormier received a warm welcome from Linda Hart, who said that along with others "we're going to go on the road to as many towns as we can to tell them 'wake up!' We'll tell them why we don't like workforce housing and don't want regional planning commissions," she said. "People are waking up all over the state."
The third featured presenter, Ric Perreault, who operates a business in Rochester and owns a lakefront home in Alton, suggested that rather than enabling workforce housing, an article should be put to Town Meeting to "get rid of the town planner." He warned that in Alton as in Rochester so-called workforce housing would become subsidized housing.
When town officials present at the meeting were asked what they thought of what they heard, Tom Hoopes, vice-chairman of the Planning Board and a member of the Zoning Amendment Committee considering the question of workforce housing, replied that he heard "a great deal of confusion."
Hoopes explained that the only way to adopt, repeal or amend a zoning ordinance was by a vote of Town Meeting, dismissing suggestions that federal agencies could set local zoning policy. Likewise, he said that speakers displayed "a total misunderstanding of the regional planning commissions." He said that he represented Alton on the Lakes Region Planning Commission and found that instead of imposing policies on municipalities, the staff of the commission collected data and conducted research to assist them in addressing local issues. "You need real honest answers and you're not getting them," he cautioned.
"You can say that again," retorted one of his many critics.
"I think there's a lot of ignorance out there and only a few of us on top of things," said another man, after expressing misgivings about Granite State Future, workforce housing and Common Core.