Stories of 2019: Peterborough’s zoning lawsuit could be settled out of court

  • Peterborough’s zoning amendment No. 15 was a hot topic this spring at May Town Meeting. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 12/30/2019 9:28:45 PM

Peterborough, a good town to live in. But who can afford it?

Zoning, affordable housing, high property taxes, homelessness, rising town costs and a contentious Selectmen race made up many of the Peterborough headlines in 2019, all pivoting on how to keep “Our Town” quaint but affordable.

Earlier this year no one was stepping forward to run for the Select Board seat long-serving Selectwoman Barbara Miller was vacating, when Bill Taylor got fired up over the town’s plan to build a new DPW building at a new location on Water Street, adjacent to the town’s water treatment facilities, to the tune of $4 million. The plan was to demolish the existing garage on Elm Street, and have the Elm Street lot eventually house a new badly needed fire station for the town.

Taylor and other residents objected to the plan during a budget hearing, saying their property taxes were already high enough, a new fire station was more important and that they wanted the board to review other options for the DPW building, which had not been done in years. The board came back with a renovation plan that would cost $2.5 million – $1.5 million less than the previous proposal. The experience caused Taylor to throw his hat in the ring to run for the Select Board. That’s when Bill Kennedy announced his candidacy and the race was on. Both Selectmen contenders said they would work to bring down the town’s rising property taxes. Taylor won the seat at May Town Meeting where voters also approved the new DPW building.

Leading up to May Town Meeting was another battle. A battle over town zoning.

For the past several years town planners have been proposing zoning amendments, which voters approved at the ballot, that were aimed at making infill building for more housing in the center of town possible. Planners said the new zoning would encourage more affordable housing and discourage sprawl in the rural areas. A group opposing the new zoning, saying it would change the character of certain neighborhoods, placed a petition zoning amendment, Amendment 15, on the ballot to repeal the new zoning.

Amendment 15, would have repealed the Traditional Neighborhood Overlay Zone II in whole and then would have amended the Traditional Neighborhood Overlay Zone I to require larger lot sizes and longer road frontage than currently required in the general residence portion of the zone.

Shortly before May Town Meeting another group in town, who supported the new zoning and wanted it to stay in place, submitted a protest petition that required the Amendment 15 zoning repeals to garner a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting and not a simple majority. Planning Board Chairwoman Ivy Vann and Kate Coon had gathered the signatures of landowners in the impacted district.

That’s when the backers of the zoning repeals called their attorney Mark Fernald, who asked the town to have the town attorney re-evaluate the protest petition.

“I have reviewed the two protest petitions that have been filed against that zoning amendment. I understand that the Town and its Counsel have concluded that both petitions are valid. I believe those conclusions are incorrect,” Fernald wrote in a letter to Town Administrator Rodney Bartlett.

The town stood by its decision that the protest petition were valid. And at May Town Meeting Amendment 15 and its zoning repeals garnered a majority but not two-thirds of the vote and so failed with 778 yes votes and 719 no votes. Coon said at the time there was a better way to go about changing the zoning. “If you don’t like [Traditional Neighborhood Overlay Zone II], fine, let’s improve it. But you need to do it through the proper channels.”

But the zoning war doesn’t end there. The backers of Amendment 15 took the issue to court, challenging the validity of the protest petition, on several grounds, including that it only included landowners in one district, despite the article addressing two districts. In return the town of Peterborough filed a civil suit against two specific Amendment 15 petition signers – Loretta Laurenitis and David Bonacci – alleging that even if it had passed, Article 15 would not have been valid, because it addressed multiple zoning rules in a single article.

Deputy Town Administrator Nicole MacStay said Tuesday that the town is now seeking to resolve the zoning matter out of court and have submitted a consent decree – an agreement or settlement that resolves a dispute between two parties. MacStay said she does not expect to here back from the court until after the holidays.

The issue of the town’s affordability, from the scarcity of affordable apartments to the high property taxes, remain and was highlighted in our coverage of Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week this past November in which we talked to locals who work with residents facing housing insecurity as well as several residents who have been displaced and unable to find affordable housing. 


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