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N.H. Town Meeting Voters Approve A Range Of Responses To Climate Change

Annie Ropeik
NHPR file photo, aerial support by Lighthawk
With a wetland on one side and ocean on the other, Hampton Beach is one of the state's most at-risk towns from rising seas.

Municipalities across New Hampshire took a range of steps to confront climate change at the local level during their annual town meetings Tuesday.  

Voters in Hampton overwhelmingly passed a set of zoning changes that will require new construction in certain flood-prone coastal neighborhoods to be built up on pilings that let water flow underneath.

Hampton is seeing more “nuisance flooding” from very high tides each year. Even moderate climate projections show sea level rise in the coming decades could put 700 homes in the town – currently worth $215 million dollars – at risk of chronic inundation.

Hampton conservation commission chair Jay Diener says the pilings proposals drew heated debate before town meeting, so he was pleased that voters approved them by wide margins.

“I suppose that if I were to read anything into that vote, it might be that Hampton residents are aware that coastal flooding is becoming more of a concern to be dealt with, and they are supportive of efforts by the town to help to reduce or mitigate the impacts of that flooding,” he said in an email Wednesday.

The new regulations are viewed as a first step in adapting to rising seas, which Hampton was able to take without much support or funding from the state and federal government. Diener has said the town will need more of those resources down the line to plan larger-scale responses.

Other town meeting articles focused more on renewable energy as a means of tackling the carbon emissions that scientists agree are driving global warming.

The town of Milford approved a lease for what would be the largest solar farm in the state by far if it’s built soon.

The 20-megawatt solar array from developer Granite Apollo is slated to be built on 120 acres of town-owned land, and should bring in around $6 million in revenue for the town in the coming years.  

Votes in other towns were more symbolic - at least for now. Epping approved a non-binding “rights-based resolution,” and Exeter a "rights-based ordinance," both affirming local rights to protect against what residents view as harmful fossil fuel development.

Exeter’s ordinance spells out residents’ rights to a healthy climate, with safe air, soil and water that’s free from contamination by corporate development.

The campaign for the declaration focused in part on the proposed Granite Bridge natural gas pipeline. The Liberty Utilities project would pass through Exeter, and some residents hope the new ordinance will help block it by requiring local approval.

“Our right to a healthy climate is an unalienable right. Any new energy infrastructure in our town must align with that right,” said community organizer Maura Fay in a statement Wednesday. “We live here, and what we envision for our community comes before what any project developer and state government envision if it threatens our rights.”

Epping’s “right to decide resolution” also focuses on Granite Bridge – specifically, the large liquefied natural gas storage tank that would be built in an abandoned quarry in town as part of it.

The resolution suggests to state officials that Epping should be allowed to vote to approve the tank before it’s built.

It also backs a state constitutional amendment that’s up for passage in the legislature again this year, after garnering a third of House votes last year, before ultimately failing.

This year’s version of the amendment, CACR8, could help these local ordinances stand up in court if they’re challenged by affected developers.  

Opponents argue the amendment would impose a form of home rule on New Hampshire, leading to a problematic patchwork of regulations.

But more towns in New Hampshire appear to be signing on to the concept at the local level.

Epping and Exeter’s resolutions join around a dozen others passed by local towns in recent years. Others have focused on protecting water resources and opposing fossil fuel development.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Exeter's approved warrant article as a non-binding resolution. In fact, it is a binding ordinance. This post has been updated.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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