Sanbornton struggles with workforce housing bill

SANBORNTON  —  While voters will be going to the polls next week to weigh in on a number of zoning ordinance changes none have garnered more controversy or confusion than the two amendments that address workforce housing.

Workforce housing is defined by N.H. RSA as 674:58-61 as housing that is intended for sale and is affordable to a household with an income of no more than 100-percent of the median income for a 4-person household for the metropolitan area or county where there housing is located. The income statistic is one determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It's alternate definition is rental housing which is affordable to a household with with an income of no more than 60-percent of the median income for a family of three in the metropolitan area or county.

In 2008 and after a series of lawsuits, the state passed a Workforce Housing law that sets out the procedures and guidelines for municipal planning boards such that a community cannot use zoning ordinances to deny the construction of workforce housing.

The law stemmed from a Supreme Court ruling in 1991 that determined the town of Chester was too restrictive when its zoning ordinances allowed multi-family housing in two relatively small areas of town that comprised about 240 acres of the town's 1,600 acres.

The court said this "was too restrictive and not realistic," wrote Jim Rollins in a letter that appeared in the State Planning News in the August/September 1991 issue.

Sanbornton Planning Board member Richard Gardner said that since the law became effective in 2010, the board has been discussing if and how they should enact ordinances to address it.

He said when the board realized last year that there was workforce planning grant money available through the N.H. Community Planning Grant Program, the selectmen brought the grant for $28,075 with $7,019 to be an in-kind contribution on the part of the town to the 2013 Town Meeting. The warrant article had the recommendation of both the Selectmen and the Budget Committee and passed.

He said many think that the Planning Board only started preparing for workforce housing when it learned there was a grant.

"We've been talking about this for a couple of years now," he said.

Right now, said Gardner, Sanbornton allows for multi-family homes in the commercial district. If Article 6 passes, said Gardner, it would allow for multi-family homes in the general agricultural, general residence, and historical preservation areas of town as well as the commercial zoning districts.

He said this would make work-force housing allowable in about 50-percent of the town.

It will not allow multi-family housing in the forest conservation district or the recreation district – meaning along Lake Winnisquam and Hermit Lake.

Amendment 4, if passed, would define multi-family housing as housing with three but no more than five dwellings. Gardner said that at this point in time, any sized multi-family dwelling can be built in zones that allow multi-family dwellings. The change would be consistent with the state law.

Amendment 3 changes the definition of a cluster. Sanbornton rewards builders for keeping as much open space as possible in housing developments by allowing them an additional building lot if they keep 50-percent of their land as open space. Sanbornton has allowed cluster development in the commercial district for 14 years. Should Amendment 3 pass, a developer who builds workforce housing and builds according to cluster rules would get an additional unit on top of the bonus unit.

At a public hearing on March 20, Budget Committee member Earl Leighton asked who would oversee the open space in a workforce housing cluster development. Consultant Gerald Coogan said that it would be the Conservation Commission, the town, or a non-profit land trust. He said the common land could not be further sub-divided.

Some residents worried that what would be built as workforce housing could turn into low-income housing and overwhelm the schools, police and fire department. Supporters say this is unlikely.

Planning Board member Evelyn Auger wanted to know if the town passed all of these new ordinances if they could still withstand a lawsuit like the one that was filed in Chester.

She said she didn't know what the town's "fair-share" of workforce housing is, noting accurately that there is no determination of that percentage until a court decides it in the wake of a lawsuit.

Auger said her stake in all of this is to keep Sanbornton the rural community that it is now.

The recommended amendments passed by a 4-0 majority of the Planning Board. Auger abstained.