Assessing the Benefits of the New Hampshire Community Planning Grant Program

Ben Frost and George Reagan

What would you do with a million dollars?

Five years ago, staff at New Hampshire Housing was asking this question after the announcement of a new Federal funding source, the Community Challenge Planning Grant Program. Recognizing that New Hampshire communities are often hard-pressed to allocate sufficient resources for their planning efforts, New Hampshire Housing had previously made grants to communities to develop housing-friendly land use regulations through its Inclusionary Zoning Implementation Program. Similarly, the state legislature had created and briefly funded the Housing and Conservation Planning Program to help cities and towns engage in thoughtful comprehensive planning and development of land use regulations. At the same time, the NH Department of Environmental Services had led a significant effort to develop a guidebook for innovative municipal land use planning and regulations. Each of these initiatives made important contributions to planning in New Hampshire, and set the stage for the next big idea.

An Idea Gets Funded. In 2010, the Obama Administration announced the creation of a new approach to interagency cooperation, the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) Partnership. This historic cooperative agreement among the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the US Department of Transportation, and the US Environmental Protection Agency heralded a new framework for federal funding for local and regional planning initiatives that focused on comprehensive approaches to community issues and engagement of marginalized populations.

Funding was made available in 2010 and 2011 to local and regional entities nationwide. New Hampshire Housing participated in a series of strategy meetings with statewide partners to decide whether our state should seek SCI funding. As a result of those meetings, New Hampshire Housing volunteered to lead an effort on an application that would provide municipalities with much-needed technical and financial resources to implement the worthy goals of their master plans. Although this is an unusual role for a state housing finance agency, it reflects New Hampshire Housing’s long-standing commitment to provide communities with assistance in land use planning that favorably impacts the housing market.

In 2011, New Hampshire Housing’s SCI application was awarded $1 million, and the NH Community Planning Grant Program was launched in 2012. Nationally, 143 SCI grants were made throughout the country, totaling $240 million. Uniquely, the CPG program used funds exclusively to make grants to municipalities to help them work on their land use regulations. New Hampshire Housing convened a steering committee consisting of representatives from state agencies, non-profit organizations, and other statewide institutions to help guide its work in developing and administering this program.

The Federal funding was leveraged by almost $800,000 in additional resources, much of that coming from the work of the municipal grantees. New Hampshire Housing provided program administration as part of its match for the federal funding, which allowed 100% of the federal grant to go to municipal projects. New Hampshire Housing and its partners also supplied considerable other matching resources, including a cash allocation of over $200,000 from New Hampshire Housing. These funds were used to engage with different partners and consultants on the development of pioneering educational and advocacy resources.

The Context of Planning in New Hampshire. The unique approach taken by New Hampshire Housing in creating the CPG Program—utilizing Federal funding to facilitate the development of local land use regulations founded in principles of sustainability—was based on a few simple understandings. First, most land use decisions in New Hampshire are local, and reflect local sensibilities; second, most communities in the state have strong master plans that embody clear visions and contain good recommendations for regulatory change, but the communities do not have the resources or the experience to make those changes happen on their own; and third, it is vitally important to involve the public as much as possible in discussions of regulatory change, including those groups of people who typically do not participate in the planning process. These understandings of local strengths and weaknesses guided the design and administration of the entire CPG Program from start to finish.

New Hampshire Housing recognized that communities needed to identify on their own what projects were important to meet their needs, so there were no rigid restrictions on the types of land use regulations that could be funded. As a result, the applications received and grants made addressed the full spectrum “livability principles” that are reflected in the state’s smart growth policy, NH RSA 9-B. Demonstrating this range of issues are Dover’s tax increment finance district and Farmington’s commercial node zoning relating to economic growth; Amherst’s and Seabrook’s water supply and wetland protection zoning addressing environmental concerns; and Alton’s workforce housing ordinance and Salisbury’s multi-family and accessory dwelling unit standards benefitting lower-income populations and fostering social inclusion.

Grants were made on a competitive basis in three rounds, and the grant funds could be used by communities exclusively to hire consultants to help them create new land use regulations. Out of 66 total applications, 46 grants were made to 32 cities and towns. In the first round, some communities sought “regulatory review” mini-grants to help them assess their regulations, and they followed up with full grant applications in the second round. Based on the assumption that sufficient planning had already been done, the CPG Program was all about regulatory implementation of those plans. Grantee communities were expected to produce proposals for their town meetings in the following year. This too was an ambitious schedule, but it proved to be realistic as most communities were able to complete their work on time.

As described below there were many different projects associated with the CPG Program, but the municipal grants were the heart and true purpose of this initiative. Consistent with the program’s design, these grants have resulted in a range of regulatory changes that may readily be replicated or adapted for use in other communities. Examples of these include Lancaster’s development of a form-based code in a small town setting, Laconia’s creation of a development scoring rubric that has been favorably received by designers and developers, and Bedford’s Bicycle/Pedestrian plan that supported regulatory changes promoting development design that will help reduce reliance on automobiles. Many of the CPG Program’s successes are documented in a series of 13 case studies that illuminate both the process and the products of this work. [See below for examples]

Public Participation. The hallmark of the CPG Program’s municipal grants, and a vital basis of their success, is the degree to which cities and towns actively engaged the public as they developed new land use regulations and ordinances. Municipalities were specifically required to utilize grant funds on activities that involved outreach to and engagement with traditionally marginalized or underrepresented populations—namely, the sort of people who typically do not participate in local planning processes. These included low-income renters, students, the elderly, and others. Municipal grantees and their consultants confirmed that this required outreach element strongly contributed to the success of many of the grant-funded local projects.

While it was a requirement for the grantees to expend at least 5% of the grant funds on outreach activities to underrepresented populations, by the end of the CPG Program they had documented expenditures of almost 13% on outreach—well over twice what they were required to do. These activities took many forms, including charrettes, neighborhood “walkabouts,” regular meetings in assisted housing facilities to confer with residents who were unable to go out to public meetings, consultations with high school students, and direct communications with renters. Throughout these activities, facilitators from UNH Cooperative Extension were available to provide advice and assistance. Consultants who worked with the grantee communities on their projects commented that this intense concentration on outreach activities was a pivotal factor in the success of many of these local initiatives.

CPG’s Collaborative Work. The CPG steering committee also recognized that local planners and board members throughout the state needed additional technical resources to engage in innovative change to their land use regulations. UNH Cooperative Extension was provided CPG matching funds by New Hampshire Housing to develop a series of Information Briefs on topics of interest and concern to planners statewide. These briefs address: (1) Why Demographic Data Matters; (2) Land Use Planning and Public Health; (3) Community Outreach and Engagement; (4) Planning for an Aging Population; (5) Form-Based Codes; and (6) Energy and Land Use.

For professional and citizen planners alike, maintaining an awareness of the need for social inclusion is of paramount importance. Having identified among planners a gap in knowledge of Fair Housing Law, New Hampshire Housing provided New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA) with CPG matching funds to develop a guidebook on Fair Housing Law for professional and volunteer planners in New Hampshire. Additionally, NHLA worked together with New Hampshire Housing to provide direct on-site training on Fair Housing Law for the staff of each of the state’s nine regional planning commissions. See the November/December 2013 edition of Town and City for a feature article on this work.

But the CPG Program also sought to introduce new ideas to planners. The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance was provided CPG matching funds by New Hampshire Housing to work with two municipal grantees to explore the local adoption of Neighborhood Heritage Districts (NHD). Relying on this experience, the NH Preservation Alliance also used this funding to create a chapter devoted to NHD in the NH Department of Environmental Services’ Innovative Land Use Planning Techniques Handbook.

In addition, New Hampshire Housing provided CPG matching funds to the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund to create a Policy Academy for members of resident-owned manufactured housing park communities (ROCs). This initiative was established to help ROC residents to learn and apply advocacy tools and techniques, so that they could represent their own interests particularly at the local and state levels. Two years of the Policy Academy produced about two dozen graduates who have the ability and confidence to advocate for themselves in often-intimidated governmental settings. This model of empowerment is being replicated now elsewhere in New Hampshire among similar populations.

Assessing the Impact of CPG. The CPG Program produced many useful tools and examples for planners to use in other communities. The remarkable success rate of the regulatory initiatives—more than 85% were adopted by municipalities—is a further testament to the quality of the CPG Program’s design, and also to the importance of the public outreach and engagement activities employed by the cities and towns that received grants.

Beyond that, though, the true success of the CPG Program will be measured by shifts in how development occurs in the communities that changed their land use regulations, and then in differences we may see statewide over the long run. To assess those changes, New Hampshire Housing has engaged the Nashua Regional Planning Commission to develop a robust series of performance measures that will help monitor the impact of these regulatory changes on patterns and types of development activity over the next five years. Grantees will respond to individually-tailored surveys, responses to which will be made through a secure online portal. The data collected will help planners, researchers, and policy-makers understand the relative benefits of the local regulatory changes made as a result of the CPG Program grants.

New Hampshire Housing remains committed to sharing these results and to promoting the manifold benefits of the CPG Program in coming years. Reports on these results will be made available on the NH Citizen Planner website (www.nhcitizenplanner.org), where the 13 municipal case studies and all other CPG resources may be found.

CPG Case Studies

Bedford, NH

(Population 18,000):

Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan

Owing to the proliferation of the automobile and development of the highway system, the town of Bedford, like many of New Hampshire’s south-eastern towns and cities, as grown exponentially in population over the last fifty years.

During the major growth periods of the 1950-60’s and again in the 80’s and 90’s housing development was exploding in Bedford. The new neighborhood developments were designed with the automobile culture in mind. Building of sidewalks were not only not required, but actually discouraged in order to save on maintenance costs to the Town.

Recognizing this transportation issue the Town set forth a Master Plan recommendation to: “Develop a town-wide pedestrian and bicycle plan. Strategically placed pedestrian connectivity throughout the community would aid in the reduction of vehicle dependency for trips internal to Bedford. Implementation of portions of the plan could also be considered as part of the Town’s Roads Program.”

The Town development regulations analysis revealed that changes to the Subdivision and Site Plan Regulations should be considered to ensure that future development and redevelopment includes provisions for new pedestrian and bicycle transportation, as well as connections to existing routes. These recommendations included providing pedestrian and bike connections in commercial developments as well as residential, and the need to connect these two uses.

The strength of the plan recommendations came from a multi-faceted public outreach approach. Historically low public involvement and attendance at public meetings presented the need to design a creative strategy to reach the Bedford residents and get input from a wide audience on the issues. The consultants abandoned the typical evening public meeting approach to outreach and instead used town events such as the farmer’s markets and Olde Towne Day, as well as targeted group meetings and on-line interactive mapping tools and surveys.

As a result, the team managed to receive over 500 responses from residents. Overwhelmingly the responses supported the need for safer and more walking and bicycling accommodations throughout the town.

OUTCOMES:

Pedestrian Bicycle Master Plan Recommendations are now included in every Road Project proposal to the City Council

Sidewalks on Route 101 Reconstruction Project were included in the final design due to Pedestrian Bicycle Master Plan recommendations.

Roadway design work that was in process includes Pedestrian Bicycle Master Plan sidewalk recommendations.

South River Road. TIF will include 4’ shoulders and sidewalks on both sides,

Sidewalks will be included on Ridge Road.

LESSONS LEARNED: Although the plan was widely supported by both the residents and the Town Council a more detailed construction cost analysis would have helped the project make a smoother transition to the implementation phase. Feedback from one source in the Town Government stressed the importance of asking residents the question “would you be willing to pay for improvements”.

Lancaster, NH

(Population: 3,300):

Form Based Code for Downtown

Route 3 Corridor

After the demolition of a Victorian dwelling in the middle of Main Street was approved in order to build a highway strip commercial building (which proceeded with full planning board approval and in compliance with all local regulations) the Town saw that it was time to examine the development regulations for this corridor.

Prior to starting the project staff from the Town of Lancaster Planning Department had participated in a design charrette in another Community Planning Grant municipality (Dover) that was focused on Form Based Code Zoning. After a discussion with the Planning Board and other local officials, Lancaster decided to explore a similar approach for its community.

The result of the community charrette was the division of the Main Street project area into three sub-zones of the commercial district. Each subzone represented the nature of the existing development: multi-story commercial development in the south, institutional and open space in the middle, and more of a highway commercial development (with design guidelines) at the north. In acknowledgement for Lancaster’s agriculture heritage, there was also a small amount of frontage reserved for agricultural activity as well.

The ordinance to enforce the new regulations was passed by a wide margin in March of 2014. At this time there has been one development proposal made: the redevelopment of a southern Main Street property, fully consistent with the goals and requirements of the ordinance.

LESSONS LEARNED: As with other communities, Lancaster has learned that outreach is a key to successful project implementation. This requires more than the posting of notices and involves going out to talk to people, where they are. After an initial meeting at the senior citizens home, the community planner visited with the residents there regularly. He met with anyone interested in the project at their place of residence or business. People he met were presented with an idea, on which they were asked to give input, rather than a finished product to comment on. They truly felt involved in the process.

Salisbury, NH

(Population 1,100):

Housing Alternatives and Village Center Visioning Project

The Salisbury planning project included two interrelated elements that emerged out of previous zoning changes and a failed housing sub-division proposal. As a result of the zoning changes and the failed proposal, the Town recognized the need to examine its zoning ordinance, with particular focus on the Retail Village District and residential district development options.

Like many small historic towns, the Salisbury Village center is located at a crossroads – here, US Route 4 and NH Route 127. Salisbury Village is an example of a small rural New Hampshire town center, with historic New England architecture and scale. However, like many similar towns, the existing zoning precluded any future development that mimicked the existing character of the village. With 2 acre zoning and large minimum setbacks, new development would result in a very different development pattern and aesthetic throughout the Village Retail District.

It became clear that a better understanding of the physical implications of the development regulations was needed, and participation and input from the public in the process was critical. As a result, the Town undertook a charrette workshop to create a future vision for the Village.

A day-long charrette provided the residents of Salisbury the opportunity to create a vision for future development. Through a series of interviews and meetings before the charrette event, the Salisbury Planning Board and consulting team formed an initial vision for the Retail Village District. On the day of the charrette a professional design team gathered with citizens to create drawings and renderings that represented the ideas and concepts put forth during meetings and listening sessions. The concepts addressed many planning and design strategies concerning circulation and traffic calming, land use and buildings, design guidelines, and expansion of the district area.

The resulting recommendations included smaller lot sizes, limiting the number of multifamily units allowed, and setbacks to coincide with existing buildings in the Village. Accessory Dwelling Units were also proposed as a new housing option, allowing additional housing on the same lot as existing dwellings and providing greater affordability. All regulatory changes drafted to address the amendments for Residential District and Retail Village District were passed at the 2014 Town Meeting.

LESSONS LEARNED: The design charrette as a communication and planning strategy was critical in the visioning and adoption of the new regulations for Salisbury. The graphic translation of land use regulations into a plans and sketches that citizens can understand is a powerful tool. This technique is engaging and creates a platform for citizens, planners and regulators to come together on a vision for their community.

Small rural towns are often understaffed and lack the expertise or resources to conduct in depth planning studies. At the same time many of these towns are under strong development pressure and often do not have regulations in place to steer the future development in a sustainable direction. With the help of their CPG grant, Salisbury committed itself to hiring a professional planning team that could properly guide the review and amendment of development regulations to ensure a more sustainable future for the Town and its residents.

Benjamin Frost, Esq., AICP is the Director of Legal and Public Affairs at New Hampshire Housing. George Reagan is the Administrator of the Housing Awareness Program at New Hampshire Housing. They can be reached by phone at 800.640.7239 or 603.472.8623.