Coos Planning Board votes unanimously to update zoning ordinance

By Edith Tucker
The Berlin Sun

LANCASTER — The Coos County planning board voted unanimously last Wednesday to update the zoning ordinance governing the county’s unincorporated places.

Before the vote, the public had a chance to comment on the proposed amendments to the ordinance. The zoning ordinance was first approved by the county delegation and commissioners in April 1991, and included establishing the planning board. The now 80-page document was amended in 2001, 2009, 2010 and 2015.

Chairman John Scarinza said that over 25 years ago the county had adopted regulations that served the county well.

The comprehensive review of the county’s regulations undertaken over the last two or three years by North Country Council Senior Planner Tara Bamford sought to update them, ensuring they are still applicable and in line with current state law and court rulings, are consistent with today’s best management practices and clear enough to provide a streamlined and orderly framework that can be used for proposed projects.

Those projects range from modifications at lease camps without running water to multi-million-dollar commercial developments. The proposed changes are based on the guiding principles, goals and recommendations embodied in the county’s most recently revised master plan, the chairman said.

The amendments were characterized in the public notice to include: 1. clarifying the process regarding zoning permits, conditional use permits and protected districts; 2. requiring best management practices to protect soil and water; 3. adding accessory dwelling as a permitted use where single-family dwellings are permitted, plus its definition; 4. clarifying jurisdiction over private development activities on public lands by converting non-jurisdictional areas to management districts and providing special grandfathering provisions for existing uses; 5. clarifying and simplifying the aquifer-protected district; 6. clarifying which water bodies are in the Shoreline-Protected District and reduce from 200 feet from normal high water mark to 100 feet; 7. replace excavation standards with reference to state law (RSA 155-E); 8. adding a new section on both cluster developments and stormwater; 9. Replacing soil-based lot size with 1-acre minimum (or greater if required by the state Department of Environmental Services) and maximum density of one dwelling or other principal use per acre; 10. remove content-based sign regulations; and 11. taking care of several other minor inconsistencies and needed clarifications plus removing definitions for no-longer used terms.

After the chairman opened the public hearing, attorney Jason Reimers of Concord-based BCM Environmental & Land Law, PLLC commented on the proposed amendments, pointing out that he represents a client, Keep the Whites Wild, a recently formed nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve and protect the diverse biology, natural aesthetic and intrinsic value of New England’s White Mountains region. The nonprofit was established after the Mount Washington Railway Company that operates the Cog Railway — now owned by members of the Presby Family — announced in December 2016, that it is giving serious thought to building a 25,000-square-foot, 35-bedroom high-end seasonal hotel at approximately 5,600 feet at the site of the Skyline Switch. The company has not, as yet, filed an application.

Reimers said that after reviewing the proposed amendments, Keep the Whites Wild “recognizes that many of them clarify and strengthen the ordinance.” In addition to correcting minor typos and errors, the organization suggested that the Critical Wildlife Habitat Protected Overlay District (PD3) be modified to incorporate the state Fish and Game Department’s Wildlife Action Plan (WAP), which has laid out the state’s overall habitat goals since 2005. It also recommended that the full title of the Protected Overlay District 6 (PD6) — Steep Slopes and High Elevations — be used.

Reimers also proposes incorporating some of the provisions and concepts contained in the Large Wind Energy Systems Ordinance into PD6, especially above 2,700 feet that can be seen from a distance of three miles.

“Given that similar scenic concerns may arise whether (the) project is a wind facility or other type of project (such as a hotel or other building), the board should have the authority to require that an applicant for a PD6 permit perform a scenic character evaluation and provide a decommissioning plan in appropriate circumstances,” he said.

The planning board not only voted unanimously to leave the zoning ordinances for high-altitude development virtually intact but also approved all the recommendations that its members had worked on for many months that were listed on the public notice.

This is only a first step in a three-step process. The commissioners and county delegation must still vote on whether or not to adopt the now-formally proposed revised ordinance.

Input from both state and federal government bodies was included. A letter was read aloud that was submitted by Land Management Bureau Administrator Tracey Boisvert of the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources that referenced the state law (RSA 674:54) on governmental land uses, detailing when the state supersedes the local level, but nonetheless requires public notice and presentation plus opportunity for feedback. However, any use, construction or land development that takes place on governmentally owned or occupied land, but which is not a governmental use under the statute’s definition, shall be fully subject to local land use regulations.

Androscoggin District Ranger Jennifer Barnhart said she would prefer that a conversation be held between the White Mountain National Forest lawyer and the board’s lawyer at a board meeting to ensure that everyone involved understands the concept of supremacy. Bamford suggested that a memorandum of understanding could be worked out and signed by both the U.S. Forest Service and Coos County.

Under Article I, the 80-page document includes a statement of general purpose: “to extend the principles of sound planning, zoning, and subdivision control to the county’s UPs; to preserve public health, safety and the general welfare; to conserve and maintain an atmosphere that will enable the citizenry ... to fulfill their traditional and unique lifestyles; to prevent pollution and conserve water resources ...; to preserve ecological, historic, aesthetic and natural values ...; to encourage appropriate residential, recreational, commercial and industrial uses not detrimental to the proper use or value of these places; to assure the segregation of incompatible uses or activities; to maintain high standards of construction ... and to mandate prudent set-back requirements near waters and roadways.”

The next planning board meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, in Lancaster.

The board expects to consider a major nine-lot subdivision in Millsfield proposed by the Carrier Brothers. Surveyor Art York of York Land Services LLC of Berlin presented the project and the board voted unanimously that the application was complete.

Dixville Capital LLC also requested that the board be prepared to address the four applications it has submitted for review (see related article) that night as well as likely on Aug. 30.