A few tips on participating in planning and zoning hearings
Some proposed developments generate a lot of interest, and the planning and zoning board hearings considering those developments often are crowded and, sometimes, contentious. Often, landowners who abut a proposed development have concerns that the development will have an undesirable effect on the neighborhood or their property values. Recently in Dunbarton, neighbors voiced their concerns about a large chicken coop that a farmer wanted to build on his land, and proposed wind farms are guaranteed to draw a crowd. You Antrim readers know that! Whether it’s the light from Crotched Mountain’s night skiing in Francestown or a Dollar General store in Winchester, Jaffrey, or Swanzey, some proposed developments inspire people to speak up.
Before you participate in a planning board or zoning board hearing, I have a few tips to help you be more effective:
1: Know the legal standard that applies. Town boards make their decisions based on what the law allows. The law that applies to any given issue may be a state statute, zoning ordinance, site plan review regulations, or something else. The applicable law will often have a list of criteria that the proposed development must satisfy in order to receive a permit or approval. If you are the developer, you should make sure that you address every requirement that the law sets out. If you are opposed to the development, you need to stick to the applicable criteria. I have seen people with sincere concerns make completely irrelevant arguments. If, for example, the ordinance does not require that a wind farm developer prove that surrounding property values will not be decreased, then you will not get very far arguing that the board should deny the project because you are concerned about your property value.
2: Be courteous. Board members are volunteers. You may not always agree with them or share their views of how the town should grow (or not grow), but I have yet to encounter any person serving on a municipal board who does not care deeply about the town.
3: Don’t just make noise. At every contentious board hearing there always seems to be at least one person guffawing and making snide remarks. Don’t be that person. Rude behavior and incoherent ramblings are easily dismissed and overshadow any legitimate concerns that you may have. Lengthy, irrelevant speeches also unnecessarily prolong hearings.
4: Speak now or forever hold your peace. If you have legitimate concerns that you do not raise with the board, you probably cannot argue those unspoken issues if you decide to appeal the board’s decision to the superior court. By not stating those issues at the hearing, you may waive them.
5: Deadlines. If you decide to appeal a board’s decision to the superior court, you must follow the statutory deadlines. Often, before you appeal to the court, you must file a motion for rehearing with the board. Make sure you know what you must do to protect your interests.
6: A few nuts and bolts. Know the difference between a “hearing” and a “meeting.” The public may speak at a board hearing but usually not at a board meeting. If you intend to speak at a hearing, you may be required to sign in. The New Hampshire Right-to-Know law allows you to record hearings and meetings (but be courteous). If you submit a letter or other documents to the board, make sure you bring enough copies for all board members, the board staff, and other interested parties at the hearing.
Jason Reimers is an attorney with BCM Environmental & Land Law, PLLC, in Concord, and a member of the Board of Directors of the New Hampshire Lakes Association.