What Can Your RPC Do For You?
The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.
The nine New Hampshire regional planning commissions collectively authored the following series of snapshots to illustrate the many ways in which they can support your local planning needs.
The primary role of a Regional Planning Commission (RPC) is to support local municipalities in their planning and community development responsibilities. This is done in a variety of ways such as:
• Assisting communities in preparing local planning documents,
• Providing technical assistance and general guidance to local land use boards,
• Helping to secure funding for transportation and other infrastructure projects,
• Working with municipalities to obtain and administer state and federal grant programs, and
• Reducing costs to municipalities through regional coordination and intermunicipal cooperation.
Master Planning, Zoning and Land Use Regulation
The Regional Planning Commission’s provide a wide variety of local planning assistance to their member communities, notably master plan update support and assistance in zoning and land use regulation reviews and updates.
During the master plan update process and depending upon the needs of a community, RPC staff can provide assistance and guidance during the public outreach and data collection stage, assist in the preparation of individual chapters of the master plan and facilitate discussions regarding the development of policy recommendations. While the vison and land use chapters are the only required master plan chapters as outlined in state statute, other sections that address topics such as housing, transportation, natural resources, economic development, and community facilities all provide a wide range of information and support to the plan’s recommendations.
The recommendations included in the master plan’s implementation chapter can often lead to updates to the zoning ordinance and/or regulations such as the subdivision or site plan review regulations. Some communities begin with a Planning Board “Process Audit” which seeks to determine how predictable and clear the Board’s approval process is for applicants, and provide recommendations for improving the process. Ultimately, the measure of a master plans’ success is the timely implementation of the plan’s recommendations. RPCs can assist in that process.
Many New Hampshire communities have active local land use boards and committed volunteer board members but lack full-time professional planners on staff to support their needs. Other communities have professional staff but need specialized assistance or additional staff support. Several of the RPCs offer Circuit Rider services to help support local planning needs. A Circuit Rider is a professional planner employed by an RPC who provides support for local land use boards, usually planning boards, on a contractual basis. Support services typically include reviewing subdivision and site plan applications, drafting zoning ordinances and planning regulations, preparing warrant articles, and facilitating public meetings and hearings.
The benefits of using a Circuit Rider include flexibility, cost control and the ability to tap into the broader expertise of the RPC, its staff, and services such as GIS. Circuit Rider support is usually provided on a not-to-exceed contract basis, so expenditures are predictable and much of the cost is typically covered by applicants. Circuit Rider planners can provide services to a local board for as little as a few hours a month to several hours a week depending on a community’s needs and can also fill-in for vacant staff positions on a temporary basis. Currently, NRPC provides Circuit Rider services to three of our region’s planning boards on a regular basis, supplemental staff support to one of our largest towns, and has recently begun providing Circuit Rider support to one of the area’s more active conservation commissions. In the past, NRPC also provided Circuit
Rider services for a local Zoning Board. Reach out to your local RPC to learn how they can help support your planning and land use goals.
One of the essential aspects of regional planning is hosting a forum for intermunicipal coordination and cooperation. Communities are often grappling with similar issues and challenges. In the most recent year communities have had to navigate an ever-changing landscape. Strafford RPC (SRPC) communities kicked-off 2020 by discussing the collapse of the recycling markets and resultant impact on municipal budgets. Using the RPC Commission meeting as a forum, commissioners along with representatives of our communities gathered for a robust conversation about the current state of recycling and strategies each are deploying to reduce costs. This commission meeting was the catalyst for an ongoing Recycling Roundtable enabling municipalities to brainstorm potential collaborative actions.
As we neared the end of the 1st quarter of 2020 the conversation across all of NH shifted to the pandemic. SRPC’s economic development team transformed its monthly local economic development directors’ brownbag lunch into the Seacoast Economy calls. Municipal staff, Chambers of Commerce, and area economic development partners met virtually, twice weekly, to share response ideas, triage questions they were receiving from constituents, and formulate ideas to support local businesses. Eight months later the Seacoast Economic Development Stakeholders continue to convene (weekly now) to plan for the future and share resources to promote regional economic recovery and resilience.
Regional Planning Commissions are perhaps best known for Transportation Planning services. In both urban and rural corners of the state, the RPC’s, through their transportation planning programs ensure an uninterrupted flow for federal construction dollars to our towns and cities. The RPC’s provide professional transportation planning and technical assistance services to member communities in understanding the causes of, and potential solutions to, transportation related issues.
The most visible Transportation Planning role for the RPC’s is through the States Ten Year Plan Process. The RPC’s utilize extensive public outreach to provide NHDOT a fiscally constrained, prioritized list of transportation priorities based on local and regional needs. In addition, the RPC’s provide a direct conduit to federal transportation dollars that can be used to improve intersection safety and operations, better air quality and expand access and mobility for those dependent on transit, bicycle or pedestrian facilities.
Finally, as a valued member of an RPC, your community has access to decades of transportation planning experience. The transportation planning staff at each RPC can bring valuable services to your community including transportation content for your master plan, transportation data collection, congestion analyses as well as corridor and parking studies.
Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting
Bicycle and pedestrian counting programs have significantly expanded among the RPCs and can capture data on a myriad of trails and sidewalks. To collect this data, Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission
(SNHPC) has purchased two Pyro Boxes, developed by the French company Eco Counter. This equipment uses infrared technology and a high precision lens to detect sidewalk and trail users by their body temperature.
Bicycle and pedestrian counting is free of charge to municipalities that are members of their RPC and produces high-quality data that can be used to capture seasonal trends, plan for future bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure and even analyze event attendance. Results are then shared with stakeholders and the public. For example, in August 2020, the Town of Derry used SNHPC bicycle-pedestrian data to support improvements to the Town’s rail trail. SNHPC staff had installed counters at two locations along the rail trail, which averaged around 563 people per day during the month of June. The RPCs accept requests for counts all year long. SNHPC has made available an interactive map of past locations and data on its website at: https://www.snhpc.org/transportation/ bicyclepedestrian/pages/bikepedestrian-counting-program.
Example of seasonal data on the Londonderry Rail Trail: In August 2018 (orange) and February 2019 (blue). As one would expect, there are far fewer users in cold weather months. Interestingly, however, daily peaks of 9:00 am and 4-6 pm remain very similar.
Housing Build-Out and Suitability Analyses
As housing continues to be an important need, RPCs have continued working on the frontlines to address the issues municipalities and regions face in regard to housing. For many years RPC’s have been addressing the
housing issue through Housing Needs Assessments. With the expanding skillsets and talents of RPC staff and recent developments in GIS software, RPCs have grown to better support our communities through housing
Build-Out and Suitability Analyses. These tailored analyses help our communities see where potential growth can occur and how minor changes to regulations could stimulate growth. This is important in decision making about land use and zoning regulations. While these types of analyses have been available for quite some time at RPCs, we continue to evolve our visuals and maps to better engage the community and encourage an understanding of what solving the housing crisis in New Hampshire could look like. Engagement is key to community vitality and visioning. RPCs are using their extended skillsets to collect and analyze data, report findings, develop strategies, and present it to the general public in ways that can be understood through visuals, public outreach and various types of media.
Example of a downtown village where UVLSRPC staff used visuals and local regulations to show what adding housing could look like in this community.
Economic Development Planning
Today more than ever, businesses and communities alike recognize that our local economy must be a nimble and ever-changing system to thrive. Through economic development work RPCs aid businesses, industries and communities in adjusting to changing conditions by identifying projects, partners and funding opportunities that strengthen our economy based on existing assets and needs. RPCs assist with project planning, grant identification and administration, connection to resources, and strengthening partnerships to improve New Hampshire’s economy.
In the case of Northumberland, North Country Council’s (NCC) work helped create redevelopment and marketing plans for a former paper mill site in order to reestablish the site as a hub for jobs and put the brownfield property back into productive use. NCC staff partnered with the community to identify a new strategic vision for the site and their community. Alongside local, state and federal partners, NCC worked to bring critical water and wastewater infrastructure to the property in order to realize a new future for the site as an industrial park, and attract growing markets and business tenants. Moving forward, NCC will
be working within the region to develop an economic development recovery and resiliency plan as we continue to assess the impact of COVID-19 with support from the CARES Act.
Emergency Management Planning
For over 20 years, NH’s RPCs have provided on-going support in assisting municipalities in maintaining up-to-date local emergency management plans. Hazard Mitigation Plans are designed to address impacts of natural and man-made hazards. Such plans reference past hazards and anticipate potential for future events such as susceptibility of low-lying areas to flooding or exposed slopes to landslides. The plans identify and prioritize hazards and develop strategies to mitigate impacts such as right-sizing culverts to minimize road washouts and installing warning systems. Emergency Operations Plans focus on the chain of command and responsibilities relative to Emergency Support Functions (ESFs) including Transportation, Communications, Search and Rescue, and more. These plans provide clarity regarding responsibilities for each of the ESFs
in order to maintain continuity of operations during a time of emergency when public safety is at stake and tensions can run high.
Through a partnership involving NH Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, RPCs have trained staff that work with local committees comprised of those most familiar with local conditions. Furthermore, these plans are expected to be updated on a five-year basis in order to maintain a community’s eligibility for funding relief in the event of a disaster declaration.
Water Resource Planning
In New Hampshire, there is a strong ethic toward protecting and maintaining clean potable water. We know that high water quality is not just an environmental and quality of life issue, but it is an essential component to our healthy economic development and land valuation. RPCs, like the Lakes Region Planning Commission (LRPC), provide a variety of assistance to communities on managing water quality. One way we do this is by competitively applying for federal Clean Water Act funding through the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. In the last several years, LRPC has assisted at least a half dozen communities in updating their source water protection zoning ordinances and maps. Many communities update their water sources over time, but forget to update their zoning overlay maps and district descriptions, which can lead to enforcement issues.
Another major way that RPCs assist communities and homeowner groups in maintaining high-quality water is through comprehensive watershed management plans and river management corridor studies. LRPC continues to work with partners to host an interactive Winnipesaukee Watershed Management Plan, and they recently assisted with the completion of the Squam Lakes Watershed Management Plan. RPCs provide important outreach to community leaders, town planners and other important stakeholders, like the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. They provide mapping support, including build-out analyses, and assist with water quality testing protocols and coordination with state entities. There are many other additional ways that the RPCs can help your community with your water quality goals, and are always there to help.
Want to learn more about your regional planning commission and the services offered?
Visit the NH Association of RPCs online at www.nharpc.org where you can read about services, find your region, and take a virtual tour of the RPCs.