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Statewide Housing Board Created To Help With New Development In N.H.

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In New Hampshire, there isn't enough housing to meet demand. But that doesn’t mean towns and cities are eager for new development. Local planning boards routinely deny new housing projects, which can result in lengthy appeals by developers.

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NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Gregory Michael, the chairman of the Housing Appeals Board, a public body created to streamline those appeals.

Rick Ganley: This new body is called the Housing Appeals Board. It was created by the state legislature last year. Can you walk us through what the board has the power to do?

Gregory Michael: Well essentially, we're an alternative to the Superior Court. Our jurisdiction is basically no more or no less than Superior Court as to housing matters. I think that's important. We don't hear, for instance, commercial or industrial zoning matters. We're restricted to housing.

Essentially, people can come and file a petition, if you will, with us to review any type of municipal board action. When the cases are filed, we must act very promptly. I like to say that our board is efficient in the sense that the only thing we do are housing matters. Superior Court, of course, has criminal matters that may take priority on the docket, other matters that may get in front of hearing these cases. When a case is filed with us, we have to conduct a hearing within 90 days. I say hearing, it's a trial.

Rick Ganley: And what you're trying to do is follow the letter of the law for that particular municipality, is that correct?

Gregory Michael: Yes. We have no power to change zoning. We have no power to change master plans. We have no power to create innovative zoning. These are all things that I've heard over the past year. We follow the town's regulatory scheme, do our best to interpret that regulatory scheme. And most importantly, we follow the decisions of these boards unless they've acted illegally, not following the law or unreasonably.

Rick Ganley: Let's take an example. Let's say a local zoning board rejects a five or 10 unit development, whatever it may be, on the grounds that it doesn't fit the vision of a local master plan or it would alter the character of a neighborhood. The Housing Appeals Board has the authority to overrule that denial, but it has to be on certain grounds. It has to be on the same grounds as based on the law of that municipality, correct?

Gregory Michael: Well correct, but unfortunately, many municipalities don't really specify what constitutes rural character. They don't really prepare an itemization for an applicant to follow to ensure that that applicant has the ability to fairly meet the standard. I mean, there are a number of cases by the Supreme Court that suggest that master plans aren't regulations. They are not regulations. Master plans are used to develop regulations and ordinances.

Rick Ganley: I want to ask you about some pushback to the creation of this board. And I think criticism comes from the argument of local control that people serving in their local zoning or planning boards know the community better than an outside agency could. Does this board chip away at that time-honored tradition that we have here in New Hampshire about local control, or do you think control has led to the housing crunch in general? I'm thinking about, you know, this not-in-my-own-backyard ism that we have this NIMBYism that we sometimes encounter.

Gregory Michael: Our board, quite frankly, has nothing to do with that. We have to follow their rules. We can't change the rules, as I've indicated. And again, we do our best to give deference to these boards when making decisions.

Rick Ganley: So you feel that this board will have eventually a positive impact on the housing crunch here in New Hampshire?

Gregory Michael: Well, I believe it will in the sense that it gets things resolved. In other words, if you've got a project, it goes to a board, it's denied. And let's assume we uphold that denial, that's done within a three- or four-month time frame. That allows the developer, a property owner, to come back with something else that may satisfy the criteria that the town may be looking for. Obviously, if we find that the board has made an error, then we have the ability to overrule the board, as you pointed out, and potentially allow the project to proceed. So I think that our board has the power to move things along, get things done more quickly, rather than get tied up for one or two years understanding what that final answer might be as to the proposed project.

Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR. She manages the station's news magazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can email her at mmcintyre@nhpr.org.
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.

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