Peterborough ordinance would provide flexibility

The Peterborough Planning Board has spent more than a year considering what changes, if any, should be made to the zoning ordinance known as Open Space Residential Design, 245-26 in the zoning ordinances. After much discussion, four workshops, numerous design exercises, and three public hearings, the board wrote a new ordinance, which, if the town votes its approval, will replace the current ordinance and govern how undeveloped land will be subdivided and developed in the town of Peterborough in the future.

The first, obvious, question is why change anything? The board believes the current ordinance is not doing as good a job as we would like of protecting and conserving Peterborough’s resources. The lack of incentives for innovative practices, the lack of flexibility in the OSRD, and the fact that the OSRD was optional meant that rather than use the ordinance, developers preferred to use the conventional subdivision method, simply cutting any parcel into the maximum permitted number of lots.

So why not continue with conventional subdivisions everywhere? The answer lies in the town’s Master Plan and in the Planning Board’s responsibility to work for the good of the entire community. The survey done in 2002 around the creation of the open space acquisition fund for the town clearly indicates that people do not want to have the rural areas of town developed into suburban or exurban house lots. What people value is a rural feeling. This can best be achieved by using a development guide that takes into consideration what the parcel being developed is really like: does it have interesting historical features, valuable agricultural land, important wildlife habitat? Under the current ordinance the only questions that are asked have to do with water and steep slopes. It is the Planning Board’s understanding that the town does not want everything not wet or on steep slopes cut up into three-acre house lots with 200 feet of frontage, whether that frontage is on an existing road or a newly constructed road.

The ordinance

Which brings us to the proposed zoning change: Innovative Subdivision Design. What is it intended to do? “The purpose of the ordinance is to allow flexible subdivision design, to promote the preservation of natural and cultural resources, and to facilitate the use of sustainable development practices.” It is intended to:

(1) encourage flexibility in the design of residential land use;

(2) promote the most efficient use of land in harmony with its natural features;

(3) discourage development sprawl;

(4) preserve open space, agricultural land, tree cover, scenic vistas and wildlife habitats;

(5) preserve undeveloped frontage along existing roads;

(6) minimize the amount of land disturbance and impervious ground cover;

(7) facilitate the economical and efficient provision of common utilities and infrastructure;

(8) provide reasonable opportunities for housing for all Peterborough residents;

(9) provide for a diversity of housing types and styles; and

(10) maintain a density compatible with the character of Peterborough.

What it means

How is the ordinance structured to accomplish these aims? The first, and most important difference, between the OSRD and the proposed new ordinance is that before a landowner develops a survey or an engineering plan for a parcel they wish to develop, the landowner is required to meet with the Planning Board and any other interested parties (Conservation Commission, Heritage Commission, abutters) to walk the land and then discuss what was seen on the land.

This requirement for a discussion before any engineering drawings have been made is crucial. Once a landowner has paid for survey work or engineered drawings, there is no incentive for the landowner to alter the plan and every incentive to resist suggestions as to where the houses should be best placed for the good of the land and the good of the town. The thing to notice here is that this meeting happens before money has been spent. It does not require the landowner to expend additional money in order to develop the land, and, in fact, may result in a lower cost for development if, for example, roads can be made shorter and narrower as a result of this consultation.

How would this requirement for a preliminary meeting be implemented? The landowner would come to the Office of Community Development at the time development is desired. The OCD would notify abutters, the Planning Board, and any other relevant boards. The OCD would generate maps of the parcel in question, showing various types of natural resources from the state database. A date for a site walk is set and publicized as a public meeting. The walk takes place, and the participants return to the Town House to discuss what they observed. At that Town House meeting, characteristics such as habitat, landscape features, wetlands, and/or historical features, if any of these are present, are noted on the maps.

After the preliminary meeting, the landowner would then have the customary meetings with their own surveyor and civil engineer to draw up plans based on the information generated at the preliminary meeting. At no time will the number of developable lots on a parcel be fewer using the proposed ordinance than is available under a conventional subdivision. The lots will be smaller, with the remaining land from the parcel held as common open space.

If a parcel of 30 acres would yield 10 house lots by a conventional subdivision, it will yield 10 house lots with the Innovative Subdivision Design. Additionally, if a landowner chooses to use any of the options mentioned in the ordinance, additional house lots (up to a maximum of 25 percent more) may be created. These options include increasing the amount of land set aside for open space, low-impact development techniques, shared waste-water systems, sustainable energy systems, innovative storm water management, and landscaping guidelines. Additionally, the ordinance provides the ability for the Planning Board to grant waivers for any of the requirements in the ordinance if it is seen that the spirit of the ordinance can be maintained in granting the waivers.

This ordinance is required for use in all cases when the original parcel is more than 10 acres. Other situations where the ordinance will not be required are subdivisions which will create three lots or fewer and where no new road is proposed; a subdivision where each of the newly-created lots will be larger than 10 acres; and finally, in cases where after the preliminary meeting the Planning Board agrees that a conventional subdivision will carry out the spirit and intent of the regulation.

Some questions

One of the questions which has arisen in conjunction with the proposed changes is: Why is it mandatory? Why is it not optional as the previous OSRD was optional? It has been the experience of other towns that innovative subdivision ordinances do not get used if the preliminary exercise of the land walk before the creation of the subdivision does not happen. People, and developers are people, like to use the form they know. If the current form allows a developer to create 10, three-acre lots, why expend the energy on a working with a new method?

The answer to that is that the new method will yield, in the opinion of persons far more experienced than I, better results not only for the town but also for the developer. Using a method such as Innovative Subdivision Design ordinance nearly always results in lower infrastructure costs for the developer, and certainly will not raise infrastructure costs.

But will houses on three-quarters of an acre be as valuable as those on 3 acres? Evidence suggests yes, particularly when those house lots are adjacent to open space, as they will be under this ordinance, open space which has been thought about and planned for, not merely what was left over after the creation of the house lots. If you think about it, there is nothing magical about three acres. Smaller lots, more carefully located on the land, with open space built in, may be more valuable, in fact.

The ordinance is structured in such a way that the board and the developer can respond to the actual parcel under consideration: waivers may be granted on any of the provisions called for in the ordinance (lot size, frontage, set back requirements, etc.) so that the developer can create a project which creates value for the developer, the residents who will live in the project, and the town of Peterborough.

Will this ordinance create little, worthless, disjointed pieces of open space, as some have asserted? The aim of the ordinance is to locate the houses sensibly on the land, preserving that which is worth preserving. The areas may not be large, but giant swathes of undeveloped land are not the only kinds of preserved land which are valuable. Five acres with a vernal pool may be as a valuable as a wildlife corridor of many hundreds of acres.

Must the houses be clustered? No, not necessarily. The ordinance speaks to clustering, but that is also subject to waiver. They must be placed carefully on the site, but a waiver would allow them not to be clustered. The ordinance does encourage shorter, more connected roads than conventional subdivisions with a long entry road and a cul-de-sac at the end.

In short, in the opinion of the Planning Board and looking at the experience in many other New Hampshire towns, adoption of the proposed Innovative Subdivision Ordinance will improve things not only for the town of Peterborough as it goes forward, but also for landowners in the town.

Those who are interested in the intellectual underpinnings of this proposed ordinance change may be interested in the work of Randall Arendt, a landscape designer, and the author of “Rural By Design,” a text used by the state in the creation of the model ordinance on which Peterborough’s proposed ordinance is based.

Ivy Vann is the chair of Peterborough’s Planning Board. However, this piece was written as her opinion and not on behalf of the Planning Board.

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