Understanding Developments of Regional Impact

By AnnMarie French

Land use boards are faced with the challenge of ensuring that developments bring positive benefit to the local community. As if weighing the merits locally weren’t hard enough, there is also the issue of regional impact to consider. In an effort to get the word out about the Developments of Regional Impact (DRI) process, the New Hampshire Association of Regional Planning Commissions presented a session at the New Hampshire Local Government Center Annual Conference last November. Through the session, the regional planning commissions hoped to dispel myths about the issue and provide resources to help local governments to implement the process. What struck this observer was the obvious level of frustration among municipal officials and local planning staff from municipalities that had not been properly notified in the past about projects in neighboring communities.

Many attendees sat in on the session hoping to unravel the mystery behind DRI. Questions included: How will DRI help my town? Will it help my town? Why doesn’t it help more? Then, the real question: What’s the point of speaking if they’re just going to build it anyway?

From the session dialogue, it was clear that a look at this complicated issue might be helpful. It is undoubtedly a sensitive area. For impacted neighbors, feelings range from a simple desire for courtesy notice to anger at being disregarded. For the boards reviewing applications, the pressure to act on applications promptly and to address local concerns may mean that impacts beyond the border simply get overlooked. But, if the tables were turned, and said project were going up in your region, would you want to know? Most would agree on the answer to that question.

What Is a DRI?
The DRI statute, RSA 36:54 through :58, became effective in January 1992. Its stated purpose is to “provide timely notice to potentially affected municipalities concerning proposed developments which are likely to have impacts beyond the boundaries of a single municipality." For example, a large residential subdivision that would significantly increase traffic and school population in a neighboring town would likely trigger the DRI process. Some of the elements to consider are: relative size or number of dwelling units; proximity to municipal boundaries; transportation networks; anticipated emissions; proximity to shared aquifers or surface waters; and shared facilities such as schools and solid waste.

The statute grants abutter status to potentially impacted communities and to the Regional Planning Commission (RPC), and provides an opportunity for each to furnish input in a timely manner. Details and time schedules are outlined in the statute.

It is up to the local board considering the application to weigh the factors and determine if a project has the potential for regional impact. The gray area, however, is addressed quite specifically in RSA 36:56: “Doubt concerning regional impact shall be resolved in a determination that the development has a potential regional impact."

“Towns that know about DRI err on the side of caution," said Sharon Wason, executive director of the Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission (CNHRPC). And this would seem like good advice. While there is little case law on the issue, RPC directors and land use attorneys point to a recent superior court case in which the failure to make a proper DRI determination and provide notice to appropriate parties was among the reasons the court used to send the project back to step one.

Regional Review
Once a city or town determines that a project may have regional impact, potentially impacted communities and the RPC are granted abutter status for the “limited purpose of providing notice and giving testimony." This decision entitles them to timely notice of the application and an opportunity to review the plans and provide input.

“As a planning board, we are responsible for doing a thorough and complete application review," said Glenn Coppelman, chair of the Planning Board for the Town of Kingston. “It is our responsibility to do the best job we can, and more information can only help." Coppelman also serves as a commissioner for the Rockingham Planning Commission, and has served on the region’s DRI Committee since 1992. Their regional review process, which has evolved over time, now includes opportunity for the developer, the community and “abutters" to provide input.

Glenn Greenwood, assistant director of the Rockingham Planning Commission, notes that the process focuses exclusively on issues of concern to the region, such as impact on traffic patterns, water, air quality and stress on shared facilities. He describes the DRI process as a “fact-finding mission" that serves to support the efforts of the local land use board, enabling it to come to a well-informed and carefully considered decision that benefits the community in the long term.

Disagreements over what constitutes a DRI led the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission to convene area communities to consider thresholds for DRI determination in the region. Once consensus was reached, guidelines were drafted and distributed to communities, providing a clear and consistent measure for projects in the region.

Bill Klubben, planning director for the Town of Bow, previously served as executive director for CNHRPC and was instrumental in developing the DRI guidelines for that region. The DRI question comes up periodically in the Bow area. “We don’t like to throw our regulations in the way of another town," said Klubben. He will often write a letter to share what Bow might do in a given situation, providing another perspective for the town to consider in its decision-making process.

Establish a Process
Communities on the border of Massachusetts report receiving notice for almost every project under review. “It’s to the point of ridiculous," remarked one conference attendee. But perhaps making regional notice part of the general process is a simple solution to ensure it is not missed for projects that do meet the requirement.

The Town of Milton took a step that few communities in New Hampshire have taken: Milton wrote DRI requirements into the local regulations. Michelle Beauchamp, planning administrator for the Strafford Regional Planning Commission, helped the town to draft the language following an encounter with a neighboring community. In that situation, the planning board was evaluating a proposed development near the town boundary, and the only access to the site was through Wakefield. According to Beauchamp, the town realized its error only after an attorney brought the DRI statute to its attention. The communities resolved the situation, but the Town of Milton decided make DRI notice part of its regular process as a precautionary measure. “This way, it is clear to the planning board and clear to the applicant that proper notice is expected," said Beauchamp. “It creates a process that is fair and equitable, and eliminates surprises."

The Town of Conway includes a detailed checklist in its Application Form for Site Plan Review, including a regional notification section with the associated fee schedule. Conway regularly sends notice with the checklist to neighboring communities. Tom Irving, director of planning, notes that including the complete checklist is helpful for abutters, who often find answers to their questions within the packet.

Fears Examined
Many communities are skeptical about the process, fearing that it may delay projects, add costs or result in loss of control.

Project delay. One of the primary concerns cited about DRI determination was the fear of delaying the application process by undergoing additional review. It would seem that a short delay for additional review would be a small detail when weighed against the potential delay of months—or years—of litigation.

Added cost. The certified mail notices are paid for by the developer. In Conway, the fees for regional notification are spelled out clearly in the site plan review regulations, available on the town Web site. Irving often receives inquiries from developers wondering if their project may have regional impact. He tells them: “When in doubt, spend the $5 for notice."

Loss of control. At the heart of most concerns is fear of losing local control. The statute only provides the opportunity to receive notice, the opportunity to speak and be heard, and the opportunity for regional review. The process results in written opinions that the town can use to come to its final decision, but final decision-making authority remains with the town.

Stay Informed
Much heated discussion at the conference session centered on what to do when neighboring communities refuse to provide notice. It is a sensitive issue, indeed. How do you stay informed if your neighbor doesn’t fill you in? Karin Elmer, planner for the Town of Bedford, shared several strategies, starting with this: “You have to be proactive." Elmer cautioned that waiting to receive notice is not always a good option. Her suggestions included monitoring municipal Web sites, scanning local newspapers, and even visiting local notice boards to stay on top of applications before neighboring communities.

Open Lines of Communication
Ultimately, the goal is to open channels of communication between communities that share resources, services and transportation networks. “The DRI process is one of the tools to enhance inter-municipal cooperation and communication," said Wason. In the role of mediator, the RPC can work with municipalities to engage in productive dialogue and find common ground.

Fostering positive relationships with surrounding communities is a key to establishing clear lines of communication. The DRI process enables boards to meet and discuss projects, something that does not generally happen in the day-to-day course of activity.

The less open space there is, the more often DRI projects are likely to come up. “Communities are part of a region," noted Coppelman. “Noise, air pollution and traffic congestion don’t observe town boundaries. The best process is that which includes as many perspectives as possible."

AnnMarie French is a Communications Specialist with the New Hampshire Local Government Center.

For more information, consult RSA 36:54-:58 and contact your regional planning commission. The LGC Web site provides information about the nine New Hampshire Regional Planning Commissions and links to their Web sites. Visit www.nhlgc.org, select “Resource Links" on the left menu, then “Regional Planning Commissions."

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