Sandown Planning Board Looks at Potential Zoning Amendments

SANDOWN – While many voters see only the outcome of the planning board’s work at updating and revising the town’s zoning ordinances, and then check “Yes” or “No” in the voting booth, much preparation goes into the ballot’s amendments. Already the board has begun trying to narrow down next year’s articles.

At its Oct. 15 meeting, the board reviewed a few potential amendments, most of them representing minor changes.
In one of the most discussed items of the night, the planning board pondered whether it would be wise to encourage a broader range of land uses in the center of town, akin to a Village District.
Town engineer Steve Keach presented Danville’s chapter on a Village District, an ordinance he helped write a few years ago for the town center. Keach explained that Danville wanted to create more opportunities for mixed use, and said Sandown might be able to incorporate some of what its neighbors did.
While many New Hampshire towns like to hearken back to a golden age of the traditional New England town center. Keach explained that modern zoning, since the mid to late 1960s, has more or less killed that possibility with clearly demarcated zones for such uses as residential and commercial.
Keach noted that in the past, a Main Street would have a mercantile shop, homes, apartments and other services, all in co-existence, and some towns now were trying to go back to that mixed use by bringing in new development within strict guidelines and repurposing existing structures.
While Sandown has a commercial overlay of its downtown residential zoning, Keach suggested ways the ordinance could be amended to create more opportunities for mixed use. Keach said he did not think Sandown needed an entirely new district.
While no one on the board stated opposition to mixed use of the town center, member Steve Meisner said the realities of commercial development make it difficult to bring anything other than homes into Sandown. Meisner said that in years previous he had tried to lease out some of his own centrally located property for commercial use but found that Sandown didn’t have the traffic count for anything substantial, and thus he could rent his property for a residence at a higher price.
Meisner said he thinks mixed use opportunity already exists in the zoning ordinance, and what Keach had presented was fairly similar to what the town already had.
Other concerns about downtown development included the scarcity of empty lots and that only a few miles away in Hampstead on Route 121A exists a built up and busy commercial area.
Keach said the more opportunities the town creates for mixed use, the more likely residents could potentially spend their money in town for services.
Members agreed to research what the current downtown overlay covers and to think of possible amendments to their current rules for the next meeting.
In a similar vein, the planning board will be looking at making the town’s home business ordinance easier to navigate for those looking to bring low-impact commercial uses to their homes.
Planning coordinator Andrea Cairns noted that residents often get held up by the current rules governing home businesses. As an example, she spoke of one resident who wanted to set up a small tax office, and though she’d have a single car visiting now and again, the current rules state the business must not generate any vehicle or foot traffic.
Meisner said that in his work on the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA), he had seen similar situations where residents are looking to follow the letter of the law and end up spending much time and money to go through a variance request for a minor issue.
Board members said the ordinance could be tweaked slightly to allow for expanded use.
Keach also pushed the board to amend their wetlands ordinance, a document that is so out of date that it is unintelligible in light of current state law. Keach explained that its definitions and language were severely out of date and did not include a working definition of a wetland.
“This is going to get you in trouble someday,” said Keach, explaining that what the board requires applicants to do in light of wetlands is not what is included in its wetlands document. Instead, the board ignores portions of it or concedes to state law.
Voters have failed two consecutive updates to the document to bring it in line with state statutes and modestly expand the protection of those resources, with an eye to protecting both the environment and municipal infrastructure, which has been taking a beating with recent years’ heavy storms and increased impervious surfaces.
Planning board members were OK with improving the document’s language, but some were adamant against moving forward with any substantive changes, noting voters’ appetite for changes to wetlands protections.
The board also discussed tackling driveway permit fees. At last Town Meeting, voters denied an amendment that would have brought that fee from $20 to $35, to align it with what the town was charging for a permit. As the amendment failed, the town had to revert back to the $20 fee from previous years.
All other permit fees are set by the board of selectmen, and the selectmen’s office has suggested that any reference to the fee for a permit be removed from the ordinance.
Keach approved that course of action, as the selectmen devise fee schedules for all other building permits.
While member Ernie Brown raised some concerns about the land required to build a duplex, other members weren’t convinced that there was a need for a reduction in lot size, noting there wasn’t a big call for duplexes in town and neighbors generally didn’t want them on their street.

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