Regional Planning Commissions: Supporting New Hampshire Communities
In 1969 the State of New Hampshire demonstrated support for local control by enabling municipalities to create regional planning commissions. Prior to then, a number of nonprofit organizations such as the Upper Valley Development Council, Inc. (1963) and Nashua Commission (1959) began forming around the state to meet the growing need to plan for development across municipal borders. The 1969 enabling legislation allowed two or more municipalities “by ordinance or resolution adopted by the respective legislative bodies of said municipalities, to form a regional planning commission.”
Regional planning commissions are governed by commissioners appointed by the municipal officers of each municipality and county. Currently 91 percent of New Hampshire municipalities are members of one of the nine regional planning commissions, demonstrating significant local support and the need for assistance. Regional planning commissions receive less than two percent of their funding from state sources. This two percent leverages enormous returns for the state. The budgets of the nine regional planning commissions combined are more than $8 million, employing more than 90 people.
The regional planning commissions provide contractual services to municipalities who do not have needed employees to assist their planning boards, conservation commissions and, in some cases, boards of selectmen. In addition to providing technical assistance and training services, regional planning commissions assist communities in interpreting and adapting to new state and federal regulations and provide guidance on appropriate meeting procedures and public right-to-know laws as well as the importance of property owners’ rights and fairness standards.
There is an increasing demand for and economic necessity to collaborate and explore shared services and regional problem solving. For example, regional planning commissions prepared analysis which led to the construction of a multi-municipal wastewater collection and treatment facility that serves 10 communities in the Lakes Region. Without this collaboration, municipalities would have been forced to separately spend $100s of millions to support individual sewer system infrastructure and operations. These types of projects have a huge role in the state’s water quality. The economic value of water quality in the state has been measured. Annual sales generated by anglers, boaters and swimmers in 2007 were over $379 million. This exceeds revenues from Laconia’s Bike Week, two annual NASCAR events, off-highway vehicle spending and spending at agricultural fairs. Nearly 6,000 full-time and seasonal jobs are generated by these activities. In another region, the collaborative work done through energy planning has led to joint purchasing of electricity which is estimated to save the region 30 percent in municipal electric bills.
Regional planning commissions assist communities in increasing their financial strength and creating job opportunities. In a collaborative effort between regional planning commissions, economic development organizations and Dartmouth College, the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center was built in 2006, jointly owned by a regional planning commission and the economic development council. The existing 32,500 square-foot incubator has enabled 38 high-growth technology and bio-tech start-up companies since opening in 2006. In other regions, regional planning commissions have collaborated with angel investment groups to spur economic opportunities.
To ensure future transportation needs are met, regional planning commissions play an integral role in developing the New Hampshire Ten Year Transportation plan that determines how and when bridges, roads and public transportation infrastructure will be funded, built and maintained throughout the state. In southern New Hampshire, the regional planning commissions have been directly involved in the expansion of Interstate 93 and have assisted 26 communities with planning for the impacts of the expansion.
The involvements of regional planning commissions directly led to the $44.5 million federal broadband infrastructure grant for the state known as “Network NH Now.” This project involves a collaboration of the regional planning commissions and the University of New Hampshire in a five-year process to determine the statewide needs for broadband in order to direct future funding for further implementation.
Equally important is the need for municipalities to respond to job growth and business expansion, such as the need for housing and transportation infrastructure improvements to serve both business and industry and commuters. Although regional planning commissions have no authority to implement zoning and land use regulations, they do provide municipalities with valuable assistance services that help maintain the essential rural character. This has proven vital to the identity of New Hampshire and has long been valued as a core strength of community success. Regional planning commissions assist communities with their visions through facilitating inter-municipal collaboration efforts such as the local rivers management programs, providing analysis on regional housing needs and identification of natural assets that communities value.
The regional planning commissions are a cost-effective resource to the success of local communities, reducing the need for municipalities to hire more expensive consultants and municipal staff to identify needs and plan for successful economically efficient futures. New Hampshire’s regional planning commissions are in a unique role to establish collaboration and partnerships assisting state, federal and local partners, and leverage involvement of private foundations and for-profit businesses.
Christine Walker is Executive Director of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission. David Preece, AICP, is Executive Director and CEO of the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission. Regional Planning Commission executive directors Kerrie Diers, AICP; Cliff Sinnott; Cynthia Copeland, AICP; Mike King; Mike Tardiff; Tim Murphy; and Kimon Koulet contributed to this article. Learn more about New Hampshire’s Regional Planning Commissions at www.nharpc.org.
New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission Project Success Stories
The following are just a small sampling of successful collaborative projects:
The North Country Council (NCC), in partnership with the Grafton County Economic Development Council and Dartmouth College, led a project to lend assistance to emerging companies in an incubator setting through the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center (DRTC). The NCC obtained funding for two 30,000-square-foot incubator buildings at the cost of approximately $10 million. The DRTC offers an educational and infrastructure support program aimed at developing promising technology startups by assisting them in refining their business plans, helping them identify and seek sources of investment and expertise, and providing them with basic business infrastructure and support.
The Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission (SNHPC) in partnership with the City of Manchester has developed the Southern New Hampshire Region Community Preparedness Program, which is intended to support development of a regional framework and plan for increasing levels of community preparedness in the region. The committee consists of representatives from emergency management, police, fire, and local government from each town in the region. This program is intended to be a model for other regions and for increasing levels of community preparedness throughout the State of New Hampshire.
The Lakes Region Planning Commission and collaborative partners developed the “Winnipesaukee Gateway” watershed management plan and website (www.winnigateway.org) to engage citizens, organizations, and stakeholders in understanding resource, environmental and planning issues facing the entire Winnipesaukee watershed, an area that encompasses more than 300,000 acres. The “Winnipesaukee Gateway” is the first “web-based” watershed management plan to be approved by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services; the New Hampshire Planners Association also recognized it as the 2011 Planning Project of the Year.