Towns and cities brace for zoning law changes aimed at boosting housing

House Bill 1661 contains a set of newly enacted zoning and planning laws aimed at encouraging more affordable housing in communities.

As New Hampshire school boards prepare for the school year, local planning boards face a different action deadline: August 23. It’s the day towns must start adhering to a set of new zoning and planning laws passed by the Legislative Assembly this year.

There are new deadlines. There are requirements for better explanations for approvals and denials. And there are mechanisms for cities to approve and help fund workforce housing, a key objective of the bill.

Towns and cities are already racing to get up to speed. An August 10 online webinar presented by the NH Municipal Association and the State Office of Planning and Development saw 400 city officials, planning board members and zoning board members tune in for a detailed briefing – eight times the standard attendance.

Some municipalities, such as Keene, have already voluntarily incorporated many of the required changes.

“A lot of what’s in the new law, we’re already practicing,” said Jesse Rounds, director of community development at Keene.

Others may need to step up their efforts.

Here’s what’s about to change:

More transparency

Some of the changes to the law, House Bill 1661, require town and city land use boards to be more upfront with residents and developers about how the process works.

The law requires cities and towns to post all necessary fees for land use permits somewhere in public.

It also requires land use boards to publish written reasons for approval or denial. The exact amount of detail counsel must give is determined by the controversy of the request, the law states. If a board fails to issue written findings of fact in support of its denial, the decision will be grounds for automatic reversal in superior court.

Natch Greyes, government affairs lawyer for the Municipal Association, noted that land use boards should act with a “quasi-judicial capacity.” “You have to explain what you’re doing, like a judge would,” he said. Those decisions could then be invoked if a developer decides to appeal the decision, he noted.

“Obviously if you had the hearing if you made the decision, the written submissions just summarize what you discussed and decided,” Greyes said.

Existing law already requires written findings of fact to be provided, but the possibility of automatic reversal if a city fails to do so is new.

Tighter deadlines

The new law attempts to speed up the decision-making process, potentially allowing for more approvals than usual.

Zoning boards will now have up to 90 days to make a decision on an application, unless the applicant agrees to an extension. If the zoning board does not have enough information to make a decision, the board may deny this request. This 90-day period begins when the request is received by the board.

The law also gives planning boards up to 95 days to make a decision; this eliminates the ability of planning boards to obtain a 90-day extension. Any extension is now only possible if the applicant agrees to waive the deadline.

Meanwhile, calls have more requirements. If counsel has acted with gross negligence, bad faith or malice, attorneys’ fees may be awarded to the plaintiff. But if there was malice in appealing to the court, attorneys’ fees could be awarded to counsel. The latter case could arise if a claimant proceeded with an appeal even though they knew there was no reasonable basis for it, Greyes said. The first case could arise if counsel were biased or biased against the claimant.

Consistent housing incentives

Cities that offer more flexible zoning requirements for senior housing are about to make a choice. The new law requires that all incentives in zoning laws that apply to senior housing also apply to labor housing.

This means that any developer submitting an application under the Workforce Housing Act can rely on the same provisions the city offers to older residents in its zoning ordinances, whether it is act as dimensional incentives or density incentives. This change won’t go into effect until next year, July 1, 2023. Cities that want to change their zoning ordinances will need to do so at town hall meetings next spring.

Noah Hodgetts, senior city and regional assistance planner at the Office of State Strategic Initiatives, said “it wouldn’t hurt” for cities to update their ordinances to specify that the same incentives apply. apply to both types of development. The requirement affects zoning ordinances but does not apply to tax incentives.

New investment opportunities

Beyond the new requirements, the law also encourages cities to build more housing.

It expands the definition of “public use” and allows the municipality to purchase or acquire land for workforce housing through any existing process other than eminent domain.

And it allows cities to create “municipal economic development and revitalization neighborhoods” and apply them to workforce housing. This designation would allow municipalities to create a “tax increase funding” district, a mechanism that allows cities to help subsidize the construction of the development using future tax revenue generated from the property.

better training

Part of the new law aims to increase awareness of existing zoning laws among planning and zoning board members across the state.

The Office of Planning and Development has created two 30-question multiple-choice tests – one for zoning councils and one for planning councils – which will allow municipal employees and council members to demonstrate their knowledge of the laws of zoning. The tests allow these board members to receive a certificate for passing the test, and they also allow others to take the test anonymously, without credit.

There are no legal ramifications for not taking the test; if a member of the planning council does not pass a test, it will not be held against them in a lawsuit against the council, Hodgetts said.

The Office of Planning and Development is developing new training materials that it can offer to municipal employees and members of land use boards, Hodgetts said.

Protections for Religious Organizations

Cities and towns also face House Bill 1021 this summer, a law that limits zoning provisions for religious properties. The law, which went into effect July 1, prohibits most municipal limitations against religious properties.

Modeled after the “Dover Amendment” in Massachusetts, the law overrides any zoning ordinance deemed to prohibit, regulate, or restrict land or structures used primarily for religious purposes.

Cities may subject religious properties to a number of standard zoning requirements, such as regulating the height of structures, size of yards, lot sizes, setbacks, open spaces, and building requirements. coverage of buildings, as long as these requirements are applied equally to religious and non-religious properties. But a city cannot take measures that “substantially burden religious exercise”, the law states.

The types of regulations that cities can no longer impose on religious properties include “lighting, signs, noise, on-site and off-site drainage, erosion and sediment control, street design and sidewalks, design and installation of utilities, open spaces, “impermeable area, landscaping” and parking requirements, in accordance with municipal association legal guidelines.

Greyes said the law’s sparse wording and lack of defined terms makes it difficult to interpret. There are no definitions of what “mainly religious” or “heavily heavy” means. Some city officials asked if they could stop a church that decided to host a shooting range as part of its offered services. Greyes said the municipal association was unsure: If the property has a dual use, such as a store or a home, the determination can be tricky, he noted.

Both Grayes and Hodgetts said the law would likely have the biggest impact when it comes to parking around churches.

“It creates a huge exemption,” Hodgetts said. “There’s no two ways about it.”

Incremental changes

As cities align their practices with the new law, new developments are still subject to approval on a case-by-case basis.

In Keene, city leaders are supportive of increased workforce housing, Rounds said. The city continues to update its zoning district code to do this; it recently licensed mixed-use properties offering multi-family housing in its commercial district, according to Rounds.

“We’re now going back to the code looking for opportunities to: ‘Okay, can we provide additional incentives to develop innovative solutions, like putting workforce housing on the second and third floors of the commercial buildings?” Rounds said. “‘Are there other opportunities like this all over town that we can take advantage of?'”

But even with new timelines and tools, approvals will depend on the project, Rounds said. Even the code update will likely continue to be piecemeal.

“We do this kind of work on an ongoing basis and it will be a project forever,” he said.

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletinan independent local newsroom that allows NH Business Review and other media to republish its stories.