Sandown’s First Open Space Development: Twelve Lots, 34 Acres Preserved

By Donna Green and Matt Russell

In the 2008 town election, Sandown residents adopted an innovative land use ordinance. If the one subdivision that has been designed under the new ordinance is an indication of things to come, Sandown can look forward to the preservation of more green space and a more ecologically-friendly and creative use of our remaining undeveloped land.

Steven Keach has been Sandown’s consulting land use engineer since 1995. He drafted the Open Space Development (OSD) ordinance under the direction of Sandown’s Planning Board then led by Chairman Fred Daley. The need for a new ordinance arose from the shortcomings of a long-standing cluster ordinance, and the town’s renewed focus on preserving open space, a major goal of Sandown’s Master Plan of 2005.

Why ‘Clustering’ Didn’t Work

“Sandown’s cluster ordinance had been on the books for a very long time," explained Keach in an interview. “It created picture-frame zoning with 150-foot buffers that forced development into the middle. The buffers became open space which was not creating quality contiguous open space and developers didn’t want to do it. Lot sizes still needed to be an acre and a quarter in most instances. You weren’t getting a true cluster development, but rather a squished conventional development with no financial incentive for a developer. The ordinance produced the same number of lots but they were qualitatively inferior to a traditional subdivision."

Under the new ordinance, which replaces the former cluster ordinance, the number of single family homes in the innovative plan cannot exceed the number of homes that would have resulted with a conventional plan.

The Innovative Subdivision

Sandown’s first development under the OSD ordinance is a subdivision on Wells Village Road designed by Rob Hoover, a landscape architect with HBLA Inc. of Portsmouth, NH. His plan, which was enthusiastically received by Sandown’s Planning Board and Conservation Commission, preserves 34 acres of the 54-acre site as open space and protects the banks of the Exeter River which runs through the site.

In traditional developments, Hoover explained, a developer builds the longest road possible into the site and then divides the lots based on the town’s road frontage requirements. This practice, he said, “chews up a big chunk of land." Since all the land on the site is parceled, it is possible that all the land would get cleared by individual lot owners. Deed restrictions on the land are hard to enforce and often make the lots harder to sell. By having smaller frontage requirements of just 150 feet, the OSD ordinance allows houses to be built closer together, “minimizing the roads and disturbance to the land and still getting the same number of lots," he said, “and … the space is forever preserved."

Hoover praises the vision of the owners for being so sensitive to the site. “[They] should be given an awful lot of credit for not putting as many lots on there as they could have with a traditional development, which means they are giving up money. Hopefully they’ll recoup that in the individual lots because they’ll be so nice."

Sandown’s Future

Keach believes the majority of major subdivisions in Sandown’s future will be advanced as OSD designs. “There are financial incentives for the developer community by creating efficiencies in reducing infrastructure costs per dwelling," he noted.

Apart from savings on infrastructure, developers can also command premium prices for lots adjacent to protected open space, making the total financial incentives for an OSD development very attractive.

Keach said he would also like Sandown to “rethink the wetlands conservation ordinance and possibly augment it with a prime wetlands ordinance." Additionally, he would like to see multi-use zoning which mixes residential, commercial and light industrial uses together, something he thinks encourages greater community integration, diminishes sprawl and enhances energy and transportation efficiency.

Sandown’s Planning Board clearly has some big issues ahead but if developers grasp the advantages of the OSD ordinance, quality open space will soon be a natural part of understanding our housing needs.

Donna Green is a member of Sandown’s Planning Board, where she has served since 2008. Matt Russell is a member of Sandown’s Conservation Commission and currently sits as an alternate on the Planning Board.