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Proposed ordinance wrong for Peterborough on many levels

Otto Von Bismarck (Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” who also served as Prime Minister of Prussia from 1862-1890) is reputed to have first observed that “the less the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep in the night.” After witnessing a Planning Board meeting in Peterborough on Nov. 6, which approved for next May’s ballot the so-called “Innovative Subdivision Design” ordinance, I’ve had a few sleepless nights myself.

The ordinance, we were told at the hearing, came in to its current form through a series of workshops held by the board with little or no input from affected landowners. No one on the board could quite remember when exactly it was decided that rather than “flexible” and “innovative” (as is traditional for cluster zoning in New Hampshire, where incentives are offered to landowners to achieve a desirable result) the article came to be written as inflexible and mandatory. However, if it were to be passed by the voters next May, it would clearly result in a sea change in owner’s rights, which would significantly impact property values for the majority of the privately held land in town.

Upon learning the true effect of the ordinance, I appeared at the Nov. 6 hearing with the simple request that the board vote on the article be delayed until stakeholders, some of whom have held their land undeveloped and to the benefit of the community for generations, could be contacted and consulted on the changes proposed. This was exactly the process the board had to their credit employed in providing postcard notifications to neighbors in the village “infill” ordinance zones. They also had engaged in very successful direct consultation with property owners in our industrial and office zones regarding the article which updates regulations in those areas of town.

Sadly, despite the complexity of the ordinance and suggestions from nearly all in attendance of specific ways it could be improved, the board seemed strangely to be predisposed to “getting it out” rather than “getting it right.”

The “executive session,” when no one but the board was allowed to speak, was particularly illuminating. The Select Board member of the committee led with her view that no further input was required. She went on to say that, however, it would be better if the ordinance only required that “innovative” cluster development be considered by applicants prior to the submission of subdivision plans. When it was then pointed out that such a process is exactly what is currently in place, we received a vivid demonstration of how much misunderstanding and need for further input actually surrounds this complicated ordinance.

After four of the seven voting members spoke to their personal feelings that the innovative zoning should be optional, not be required in the rural district, the chairman launched into an impassioned presentation of his views:

He told the committee that if they wanted to make the zoning optional, they should simply vote the measure down. Citing his vast experience and professional credentials, the chair went on to argue that no one would use cluster zoning incentives unless they were made a requirement. This is, of course, belied by the creation in Peterborough of numerous developments under incentive cluster zoning such as Stone Ridge Drive, Nubanusit Community Farm, Long Hill Estates, Robbe Farm Rd. / Legacy Woods development, West and East Ridge Drive and the like.

In a particularly awkward interlude, the chair stated in response to a board member’s assertion that it would be helpful to consider case studies and practical examples, such as had been used for the “infill” ordinance, that he was not an advocate of using practical examples to troubleshoot theories. However, he twice mentioned his concern that a neighbor of his might attempt to subdivide a 25-acre parcel near his own home…a home which the chair hopes now to sell and move to Maine.

Although I am obviously disappointed with the 5-2 vote to pass this seriously flawed article on to the voters, perhaps the silver lining will be an opportunity for the citizens of the town to weigh in on what they wish for our community and to consider greater personal participation in our local governance.

Do we really believe that dense cluster development on long private roads miles from the village is in keeping with the character of the rural areas of our town? Do we feel that the devaluing of long-held assets is an incentive to future investment in our community? Do we really believe that our tax rate will not increase as a result? If we sacrifice the current balance of private and community interests provided for in our current zoning regulations and cede effective control of decisions over the use privately held land to the subjective judgments of those who have not been obligated to pay for the property’s mortgages, taxes or other carrying costs — who would be inclined to invest in such an arrangement?

Townspeople are normally predisposed to vote for proposals that are crafted by our hard-working, volunteer member boards. But every now and then, there is an exception. This “Innovative Subdivision Design” proposal is certainly such an exception and deserves to be defeated at the polls next May.

Andy Peterson lives in Peterborough.

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