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N.H. House committee proposes overhaul of Sununu-backed workforce housing legislation

A row of grey townhomes in Portsmouth under construction
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
The bill is broadly intended to speed up planning board approvals for new housing projects. But the amendment inserts a number of bills that have already been rejected by Senate committees this session, raising questions about its future.

House Republicans have made significant changes to a workforce housing bill championed by Gov. Chris Sununu, throwing the future of the bill into doubt.

An amendment to Senate Bill 400 recommended by the House Municipal and County Affairs Committee last week would remove a proposal to give preferential state infrastructure funding to towns that speed up their zoning approval processes.

The amendment would also roll back a piece of the existing state workforce housing law by allowing towns to refuse to allow workforce housing in areas that aren’t directly served by municipal water and sewer lines. Currently, towns must provide “reasonable and realistic opportunities for the development of workforce housing” as long as the areas meet “reasonable standards” that include water supply and sanitary disposal.

And the amendment would tack on a number of unrelated bills to SB 400, including a bill allowing voters to impose budget caps over school districts; a bill limiting the authority of town health officers; and a bill preventing municipal mask mandates.

The proposed overhaul still needs to pass the full House in the coming weeks, and the changes must be accepted by the Senate. But the amendment inserts a number of bills that have already been rejected by Senate committees this session, raising questions about the future of the underlying bill.

Sponsored by Wolfeboro Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley, the Senate majority leader, SB 400 once appeared to have strong prospects.

The bill is broadly intended to speed up planning board approvals for new housing projects. The version of the bill passed by the Senate in March would create a training program for members of zoning boards; require cities and towns to post permitting fees; require a city or town to offer the same incentives for workforce housing that it does for housing for older residents; allow towns to create inclusionary zoning districts that require affordable housing; require a land-use board to give detailed written “findings of fact” explaining why it rejected a development proposal; require zoning boards to approve or disapprove of an application within 90 days in most cases; bar towns from imposing age restrictions on workforce housing developments; speed up appeals before superior courts and the state Supreme Court; allow towns to designate workforce housing projects as “public use” for districting and land acquisition purposes; expand the amount of community revitalization tax relief that towns can offer to developers of residential units; and create a “housing champion certification program” to give “preferential access to state resources,” such as infrastructure funds for towns and cities that take steps to encourage workforce housing.

Sununu used his February State of the State address to promote the bill in front of the full House and Senate, calling it “a bill to create regulatory incentives for workforce housing across this state” and touting it as a bipartisan effort.

But the cracks in the bill’s support began to show during the Senate’s March vote. While the Senate approved the bill, it did so on a 13-11 vote, with most Republicans opposed. Last week’s proposed House amendment demonstrated the long-running skepticism held by Republicans on the Municipal and County Government Committee of bills that add new requirements for housing and zoning boards.

In its overhaul last week, the committee added language duplicating House Bill 1393, which would allow school district residents to impose a budget cap with a 60 percent vote; House Bill 1272, which would limit the jurisdiction of city and town health officers over pandemic response; and House Bill 1268, which would bar the ability of cities to use ordinances for mask mandates.

HB 1393 and HB 1272 have both been recommended “inexpedient to legislate” by the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee; HB 1268 has been recommended for “interim study” by that same committee. If the full House passes the amendment to SB 400, the two chambers will need to negotiate through a “committee of conference” and come to agreement or the bill will fail.

Some ranking members of the House have pointed to the workforce housing bill as an opportunity to achieve conservative policy victories.

“This bill has critical Republican priority amendments that will help limit the authority of town health officers, adopt school budget caps, and limit the authority of city council bylaws and ordinances,” said Jason Osborne, an Auburn Republican and the House majority leader, in a fundraising email last week.

A spokesman for the governor’s office, Ben Vihstadt, did not respond to a request for comment.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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