NHARPC CORNER: What Is Planning and Why Do We Plan?

By Stephanie Alexander, Central NH RPC; Jeffrey Hayes, Lakes RPC; Kaela Tavares, North Country Council; Mikayla Jerominek, Rockingham Planning Commission; Sylvia von Aulock, Southern NH Planning Commission; Jason Cooper, Southwest RPC; Jen Czysz, Strafford RPC; Autumn Scott, Strafford RPC; Austin Ford, Upper Valley Lake Sunapee RPC

What is Planning?

It may surprise you to know that land use planning topics can come up in the dentist chair, when talking with a neighbor, reading the paper, or in whispers by your hairdresser. How is that true? Simple, people talk about change, growth, and preservation of the land, water, and even air. Whether it is a new brewery coming to town, a small subdivision down the street, or when a building had been vacant – now a new furniture repair and antique store is moving in: people talk about land use changes all the time.

Anything being built is designed according to guidelines and regulations and with few exceptions, must go through a review process. Planners help guide that process and help develop the regulations. How a community grows is shaped by community developed master plans, ordinances, regulations, and guidelines. Professional and volunteer planners care about their community: the environment, the people, the infrastructure, the businesses, the schools, and everything that makes the community and region unique.

We often ask the question: “What do vibrant communities actually look like?” It can be different for every community based on their unique needs and goals, but planning helps New Hampshire communities determine what vibrancy looks like and how to get there. Whether it’s bringing new transportation options to seniors who have aged out of driving, assisting with grants for preservation of cherished historic sites, conservation of green spaces and natural resources, or facilitating the development of housing we need.

Planning is not new. The Ordinance of 1785 provided for the rectangular land survey of the Old Northwest, establishing today’s range roads. During the 19th century, planning was undertaken by corporations to create industrial economies. Communities were laid out to include factories, commerce, housing, and recreation. It was early in the 20th century that the first zoning ordinances were promulgated. In New Hampshire, the Supreme Court, in the 1928 Sundeen v Rogers case, upheld the importance of zoning to promote health, safety, “the comfort of the community, or the protection of property.” Further it recognized that “industrial conditions, and political theories” change over time, and thus does our need to respond to the conditions of the day.

When it comes to meeting challenges with solutions, planning plays an integral role in helping New Hampshire adapt to whatever may lie ahead.

 How Do We Plan?

Community input along with data analysis and research, serves as the foundation for a neighborhood, municipal or regional master plans that lays out the community’s vision, goals, and establishes an implementation road map. Planning considers how land use development patterns, transportation, community facilities, economic development, natural resources, recreation, utilities, and more need to evolve to meet the needs of residents and prepare for the future. In addition to setting the framework for attractive places to live, it offers an opportunity for communities to identify, plan for, and efficiently budget for services, infrastructure, and facilities. Master planning helps ensure we can have safe and healthy places to live and play, respond to emergencies, provide the infrastructure necessary to support community needs, and have a clear path toward implementation into the future.

One of the key elements to successful planning is getting input from residents and businesses so that how a community grows is guided by those who live and work there. Local planners and regional planning commissions hold focus groups and workshops, go to community events to ask people about their opinions, use social media and email community representatives.

windham   SNHPC Staff at the 2023 Windham Easter Egg Hunt – Talking with Parents about Play Space Accessibility

Data analysis and GIS (geographic information systems) are also critical to the success of planning. Data-driven planning increases the effectiveness and efficiency of planners in their efforts to address the challenges and futures of their communities. With GIS, planners can map and track land use, natural resources, infrastructure, demographics, and more. These tools also allow for identifying trends and modeling scenarios to ensure informed decision making.

The heart of planning is implementation. One means of Master Plan implementation is through the Planning Regulation and Zoning Ordinance framework. A Master Plan vision is crafted by the residents of a community engaged in the planning process. Moving from a Master Plan vision to reality is often facilitated by planners. Planners play an important role in advancing implementation strategies by advising local boards and committees on regulations and ordinances, to ensure that residential, commercial, industrial, and public uses of space meet the desired vision of the community.  

Why Do We Plan? Why Does it Matter?

Someone once said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Sound planning yields numerous economic benefits. It enhances efficiency by optimizing land use, reducing transportation costs, and promoting proximity between residential, commercial, and recreational areas. Good planning practice fosters the development of efficient infrastructure, enhances productivity and conserves valuable resources.

Additionally, well-planned communities attract businesses and investments through improved accessibility and amenities. This influx of economic activity generates employment opportunities, stimulates local markets, and increases the overall economic output of the region. Moreover, planned neighborhoods often lead to higher property values, benefiting homeowners and local governments through increased tax revenues.

Effective planning can reduce environmental impacts and enhance the long-term economic resilience of a city. By incorporating green spaces, promoting energy efficiency, and implementing sustainable transportation solutions, communities can minimize environmental impacts and position themselves for continued economic growth in an environmentally conscious manner.

Regional Planning Commissions

Communities aren’t alone in their planning endeavors. New Hampshire’s nine Regional Planning Commissions work closely with towns and cities. Established by state legislation in 1969, the regional planning commissions serve in an advisory role to their member municipalities. Our mission is to support local municipalities in their planning and community development responsibilities through collaboration, development of regional plans and resources, and local planning assistance. Together, these actions improve the quality of life in the region. The Commissions’ professional staff offer many services over several planning aspects. These include, but are not limited to master planning, zoning and land use regulation, circuit riding, inter municipal coordination, transportation planning, bicycle and pedestrian counting, hazard mitigation planning, housing build-out and suitability analyses, economic development planning, emergency management planning, and water resource planning.

The economic benefit of regional planning in New Hampshire is far-reaching, encompassing enhanced efficiency, increased investment, job creation, and long-term sustainability. The Regional Planning Commissions leverage local dollars and create efficiencies at the local level. Through grant writing and technical assistance, the RPCs leverage $100,000 in state funding to secure millions of dollars in grant funding to pour back into our communities. Investing in planning and project development ensures that projects are “shovel ready” to be advanced when grant funds become available. Effective regional planning not only boosts the economic vitality of a region but also contributes to the overall well-being and quality of life for its residents.

As Granite Staters, we are uniquely privileged to enjoy natural beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities. It is important to protect the environment that makes New Hampshire so special. Regional planning commissions can act as an intermediary between lake associations, municipalities, and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. RPCs can assist in applying for and administer funding to facilitate watershed management projects. For areas with known water quality issues, projects can directly fund the implementation of best management practices, such as improved stormwater management infrastructure.

The primary catalyst for forming the Lakes Region Planning Commission (LRPC) in the late 1960s was to protect the region’s water quality. Today, LRPC operates the largest and longest lasting household hazardous waste program in the state.  Every year, we work with our communities to safely remove and dispose of approximately 60,000-80,000 pounds (30 to 40 tons) of household hazardous waste preventing negative effects on human health and mitigating potential illegal dumping and disposal throughout the Lakes Region.

Hazard mitigation planning, by way of another example, enables communities to identify and implement actions that ensure greater protection from expensive natural disasters and severe weather. The planning process to develop a current five-year hazard mitigation plan approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency prepares local departments and boards to consider mitigation ideas that benefit the entire community. Investing now in projects such as strengthening municipal regulations, adopting the latest building codes, installing lightning rods and grounding systems in municipal buildings, and upgrading culverts on local roads can save the community money in the long run.

Let’s Plan!

No matter the community size or make up, planning is critical to shaping the future and balancing housing, economic development, transportation, and natural resource protection. It strengthens quality of life and connections between residents, neighboring communities, and businesses. Planning improves governance and promotes sustainable development. And every thrifty Yankee can appreciate the cost benefit of wise planning.     

To learn more about these services, be sure to check out the NH Association of Regional Planning Commissions’ January/February 2021 Article “What Can Your RPC Do for You?” (https://www.nhmunicipal.org/town-city-article/what-can-your-rpc-do-you). Be sure to also visit the NH Association of RPCs online at www.nharpc.org where you can find your region and take a virtual tour of the RPCs.