By C. Christine Fillmore, Esq.
C. Christine Fillmore
The idea is deceptively simple: street names and numbering systems should be clear and logical so that emergency workers can respond quickly to a call for help. Reducing response time for emergency calls is the purpose of New Hampshire’s coordinated statewide enhanced 911 system (E-911). RSA 106-H:1. However, a drive through many older New Hampshire communities or a glance at a newspaper is all it takes to see that there are still quite a few confusing street names and numbering patterns. This is hardly surprising in a state where streets have been developed, changed and extended for well over 350 years.
As a result, it is not uncommon to find the same name on several different streets (for example, Portsmouth’s Sherburne Road, Sherburne Street and Sherburne Avenue) or streets with confusingly similar names (Wedgewood Road, Edgewood Road, Ledgewood Drive). Street numbers may be non-sequential or completely out of proportion to the actual distance between properties. The practical results of all of this can range from annoying to very serious, depending upon the nature of the emergency and the familiarity of the emergency workers with the area.
Of course, change is never easy. Even people who understand the need to rename or renumber a street may resist the change for sentimental, historical or logistical reasons. People may have lived or owned property at the same address for many years (or many generations). Going through the annoyance of changing their address with the postal service, every utility, creditor, financial service and friend who sends them mail (when they haven’t even moved!) is not something that makes many people happy. A clear understanding of the legal process is an important first step for local officials who may face difficult questions from citizens. We have tried to answer some of those questions here, and to provide a few suggestions about the logistics of getting through the process as efficiently as possible.
Q. Who is responsible for assigning or changing local street names?
A. The governing body of the town, city or village district (board of selectmen/town council, city council/mayor and board of aldermen or board of village district commissioners) has the authority to assign street names within the municipality. RSA 231:133, I. Street names must be assigned as part of the initial layout or acceptance of a new street. RSA 231:133, II.
In selecting a street name, the governing body is not bound by any name previously assigned to the street by any private owner, developer or anyone who dedicated the street to the municipality. No name may be assigned which is already assigned to another street, or which is confusingly similar to any existing name, or which otherwise might delay emergency response. RSA 231:133, II.
The governing body may also change the name of a street “at any time when in its judgment there is occasion" for doing so. RSA 231:133, I.
Q. What is the process to assign or change a street name?
A. The naming of a new street is part of the layout or acceptance process. The governing body votes at a public meeting to select a name for the new street. The process may be exactly the same for a name change, but there are additional options. In towns and village districts, the governing body has the option (but not the obligation) to hold a public hearing on the name change and to submit the new name(s) to the legislative body (town meeting or village district meeting) for approval. Voters in towns and village districts may also submit petitioned warrant articles for a street name change under RSA 39:2. See RSA 231:133, I, II. Once a new name or a name change has been approved by one of these methods, the governing body is required to make a return (file a record) of the change with the town, city or village district clerk, as appropriate. The clerk will make a record of the new or changed name and forward a copy of the record to the Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. RSA 231:133, III.
Q. What about the names of private roads?
A. The governing body may change the name of any private street within the municipality “when the name change is necessary to conform to the requirements of the enhanced 911 telecommunications system." RSA 231:133, I.
Q. Who is responsible for assigning or changing address numbers?
A. As with street names, the governing body has authority to assign or change address numbers on streets within the municipality. RSA 231:133-a.
Q. What is the process to renumber a street?
A. Before assigning or changing street numbers, the governing body or planning board must hold a public hearing with at least 10 days’ notice, posted in two places in the municipality, published in a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality, and sent by first class mail to all record owners of property to be numbered or renumbered (as indicated by municipal records). However, if all of the owners (as shown on town records) voluntarily consent to their property being numbered or renumbered, the public hearing is not required. RSA 231:133-a. After the hearing, the governing body should vote on assignment or change of street numbers at a public meeting. Each municipality assigning or changing street numbers is encouraged to notify the New Hampshire Bureau of Emergency Communications of that assignment or change as part of the state’s E-911 system. RSA 106-H:10.
Q. Can the governing body assign or change street numbers on private roads?
A. Yes, the governing body has authority to assign or alter address numbers of buildings and other property along any public or private way in the municipality. RSA 231:133-a.
Q. How does all of this fit with E-911 requirements?
A. Municipalities are encouraged to provide the Bureau of Emergency Communications annually with a verified master street address guide and a verified street address guide so that the state can maintain an up-to-date E-911 database. RSA 106-H:10. A “verified master street address guide" is an alphabetical listing of all street and house number ranges within a municipality, including the beginning number and the highest possible number on each public or private street with multiple structures. RSA 106-H:2, VIII-a. A “verified street address guide" is a listing of all numbered structures on each public or private way with multiple structures within the municipality. RSA 106-H:2, XIII-a.
Q. How do we coordinate the subdivision and site plan approvals for new developments with the approvals for street names and numbers?
A. These statutes do not provide much guidance on the details of coordinating street naming and address numbering by the governing body with the planning board’s approval of subdivision and site review applications. The solution may be a bit different for each municipality. To determine what makes sense for any particular town or city, it may be helpful to look at the systems that the municipality already has in place.
One item to consider is whether or not the municipality has already done E-911 mapping. A list of towns and cities that have done this is available on the Bureau of Emergency Communications’ Web site, as well as a link to the Bureau’s Addressing Standards Guide, an informational publication providing suggestions for naming and numbering (www.nh.gov/safety/divisions/emergservices/nh911/911mapping.html). If E-911 mapping has already been completed, it is likely that the governing body has developed a system and a policy regarding street names and address numbering.
It is also important to look at how other local ordinances, regulations and policies affect street naming and numbering. The local building permit or certificate of occupancy ordinance and regulations might require an approval from the governing body for street names and/or numbers before the building permit or certificate of occupancy may be issued. It may also be appropriate to require subdivision applicants to obtain approval from the governing body for new street names before subdivision approval will be granted. Numbering decisions may take longer than name assignments because of the public hearing and notice requirements; therefore, it may make more sense to require address numbering approval as a condition subsequent to a subdivision approval (something that must be done within a certain time after the approval is issued).
Yet another way to approach the issue is to require proposed subdivision plats to indicate the center line of all proposed streets in 50-foot increments to facilitate later E-911 address numbering, but not to actually require the numbering approval as part of the subdivision process. This can be very helpful at a later time when the governing body assigns address numbers, particularly if they are following the Bureau of Emergency Communications’ recommendation of one address on each side of the street for every 50 feet in length. It is also worth checking to see if E-911 numbering is already required by other ordinances or regulations in town, because if it is, then planning board regulations might not need to incorporate it.
Q. Where can we find specific recommendations about street naming and numbering systems?
A. The New Hampshire Bureau of Emergency Communications publishes an Addressing Standards Guide which may be downloaded from the Bureau’s Web site (www.nh.gov/safety/divisions/emergservices/nh911/911mapping.html).