Planners adopt state's first building design scoring system

LACONIA — The Planning Board this week voted unanimously to add a schedule of architectural design standards, accompanied by a numerical scoring system, to its site plan regulations, becoming the first municipality in the state to take this step.

Since the design standards are an amendment to the site plan regulations, not to the zoning ordinance, they do not require approval by the City Council. The regulation will apply to the construction of all buildings and additions of more than 2,500-square-feet, excepting only one and two family residences.

The vote followed a public hearing at which only one person, Robert Sawyer of Sawyer's Jewelry, spoke. He voiced concern that the standards would prove "overly expensive and overly restrictive."

Planning Director Shanna Saunders stressed that the regulation is intended to supplement the current ordinances without vesting the Planning Board with more authority than it already possesses. She explained that the board already applies architectural criteria to its review of proposed projects, but noted "none of this is detailed, visible to the applicant, up front." The standards, she said, would make the planning process more transparent and predictable by informing builders and developers of what is expected before they invest time and money in designing a project.

The proposal consists of written and illustrated guidelines describing specific architectural goals such as entryways, landscaping, roofing, materials, lighting, windows and decoration. A score sheet, which awards, withholds and detracts points for an array of optional components, would be applied to the site plan, with a minimum of 50 points required for approval.

For example, a plan to place parking space at the rear of the building would gain four points while putting parking spaces at the front of a building would lose four points.

The standards would vary from one district to another in the city. Likewise, buildings within five feet of the average height in the neighborhood would earn between two and four points, while those more than five feet higher or lower would lose five points for each story they deviate from the norm. A design review sub-committee of the Planning Board will shepherd developers through the process.

The numeric score, although a strong predictor of the outcome of the planning process, would not bind the Planning Board, which may "use its judgment to either allow projects that do not strictly meet the numeric guideline due to extenuating circumstances." At the same time, the board "may also require further improvements to a proposal that meets the number requirement but does not meet the spirit of the regulation."

The standards were prepared by Hawk Planning Resources, LLC, Ironwood Design Group, LLC and SMP Architecture, Inc. Roger Hawk described the regulation as "an educational tool" that will "force developers to think more creatively about their sites." Eric Palson of SMP Architecture likened the regulation to a "pre-flight checklist."

"I don't know what the cost is," Sawyer told the board. "I haven't seen any information about the cost." He noted that as a founder member of the Main Street Program "this is not new to me" and recalled that he dressed the facade of his store, confessing that he used vinyl, which under the scoring system would have cost him five points.

Warren Hutchins, the chairman of the board, replied that currently major projects undergo a "conceptual design review" and said that the explicit standards will "save money on the front end." He assured Sawyer that "our objective is to lower costs."

Unconvinced, Sawyer countered that "it looks like a learning process on someone else's dollar."

Saunders repeated that the regulation "is not a new power. The Planning Board can require any of this right now."

Still skeptical Sawyer remarked that he feared "you'll have to be one of three drug store chains or else you can't afford to build here."

City Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) expressed concern about administering the point system. "A lot of what we're doing with the point scoring is subjective," he said. "Even though the intent is to make the process easier, to reduce the cost," he continued, "I want to hear that it is working in the Planning Department.

The process of preparing the standards began in 2010, when the plan to rebuild the McDonald's restaurant on Union Avenue highlighted the shortcomings of the existing regulations. The Planning Board balked at the "boxy" profile, blank walls and flat roof proposed only to be reminded that the ordinance prescribes that buildings be "compatible" with others in the neighborhood. "That was a wake up call," Saunders remarked at the time.