Local and vocal: How much does ‘NIMBY’ism impact proposed projects?

  • Mary Ann Mastro of Lebanon, N.H. moved to her home with her son and husband in 1972. Mastro lives on Green Street in Lebanon, near a large proposed apartment building complex on Bank Street that was scaled down two years ago. Mastro was tending sunflowers in the front of her home on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Dartmouth College's Graham Indoor Practice Facility as seen from Tyler Road in Hanover, N.H., on Aug. 4, 2021. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Dartmouth College's Graham Indoor Practice Facility was built between the Boss Tennis Center and Scully–Fahey Field in Hanover, N.H. The 70,000 square-foot facility was initially rejected by Hanover's Planning Board but the college prevailed in court. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/7/2021 9:07:03 PM
Modified: 8/7/2021 9:19:11 PM

When Mary Ann Mastro talks about the brown single-family home she and her husband, Frank, purchased in 1972, there’s a sense of pride in her voice.

Yes, the circa-1850 home just outside of downtown Lebanon was a little too big for the couple when they first moved in. But as their family grew, the Mastros were happy to live within walking distance of neighborhood schools, a city library and a neighborhood grocery store.

Green Street, where the house is surrounded by a mix of single- and multifamily homes — many dating from the 1800s — also is important to Mastro. It’s always been home to families who largely get along and help one another, she said.

“It’s quiet most of the time,” Mastro added.

So when a Hanover developer nearly two years ago proposed a new, three-story apartment building on neighboring Bank Street, Mastro and her neighbors organized.

Over months, they appealed to the Lebanon Planning Board to either kill or curtail the project, warning that it would loom over their homes, throwing shade over backyards and increasing traffic within a neighborhood where children and young families often walk.

It didn’t help that the units would be marketed to young professionals and hospital employees, who residents worried wouldn’t be willing to establish ties in Lebanon.

“It was just capitalism with a capital C,” Mastro said, looking back on the proposal. “Too much, too high and too everything.”

The plan for Bank Street, put forward by Hanover landlord Jolin Kish, was to tear down a 171-year-old mansion-turned-boardinghouse and replace it with two new structures. One of those would include 36 new two-bedroom apartments and two floors of parking structure.

But Mastro said it didn’t reflect Lebanon or its old New England charm, and the nine-member Planning Board sided with her. Kish later came back with a scaled-down development that won approval.

While Mastro said her neighbors argue that they were defending downtown Lebanon from a developer who sought to capitalize on its less-restrictive zoning laws, some see the fight over Bank Street as indicative of a greater problem.

Residents, they say, too often stand in the way of progress, whether it be in the form of new housing, improved recreational offerings or other types of infrastructure.

Some critics go a step further, labeling the actions of those who write angry letters, protest at land use meetings and lobby selectboards as “NIMBYs.”

The term, an acronym meaning “not in my back yard,” is oftentimes used derogatorily to refer to those opposed to any change in their neighborhood. And NIMBYs are blamed for everything from San Francisco’s strict zoning laws to the Upper Valley Haven’s establishment in White River Junction due to opposition in Lebanon.

But while planners and developers agree that NIMBYism is present in the Upper Valley, there’s debate over whether they actually have the power to stall or halt projects.

Dan Nash, a longtime Lebanon engineer who worked on the Bank Street project, said it’s clear that well-organized residents are given preferential treatment by land use boards.

Nash, who is a former city engineer and now sits on the Lebanon Zoning Board, said he’s been present dozens of times as neighbors claim that projects are “out of character” with their surroundings. And the Bank Street proposal, he said, was a perfect example of those sentiments getting in the way.

His initial plans included indoor parking, which requires less street-level pavement and allows for more green space. But with the elimination of the project’s larger building, those spaces were later distributed throughout the site.

The revised plan also offers fewer units, 18 two-bedroom apartments, down from 36.

“Everything she was proposing was according to the zoning ordinance and was allowed, and the neighbors were just set against it,” Nash said.

The engineer said there are similar battles throughout the Upper Valley. For instance, when Twin Pines Housing Trust in 2016 proposed building 31 units of affordable housing on Mascoma Bank’s West Lebanon parking lot, neighbors claimed it looked like a “giant prison complex” that wasn’t “in harmony” with the neighborhood. (The nonprofit later built a smaller development on neighboring Tracy Street).

Likewise, the Lebanon Housing Authority withdrew plans the same year to build a four-story, 30-unit apartment building for low-income housing on Bank Street in the heart of downtown Lebanon after officials worried the structure, which met the city’s height limitations, was too tall.

Those losses matter, Nash said, especially when Upper Valley planners and housing advocates all say there’s an urgent demand for more units.

“There’s a need to build more and more housing, but there’s just resistance both on the municipal level and from neighbors,” he said. “I’m not sure that things will get better.”

The Upper Valley’s housing crunch

A study released earlier this year estimated that about 10,000 new homes are needed by 2030 to meet demand in the Upper Valley. That’s about three times the number of new units built over the last decade.

The “Keys to the Valley” report, which was produced by the region’s three planning commissions, said the Upper Valley needs all kinds of homes, including emergency housing, those with support services and units within walking distance to public transit.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire Housing recently released findings of high prices and little inventory within the Granite State’s rental market.

For example, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Grafton County rose more than $300 to $1,462 since 2016. At the same time, the county’s vacancy rate dropped to just above 1%, down about 6.5 percentage points.

The shortage doesn’t just harm renters and buyers but also local businesses, which have long warned that they can’t find enough staffers capable of either paying the region’s high rents or commuting long distances.

Both Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the area’s largest employer, and Dartmouth College are working to house more people near Route 120 in Lebanon, but there’s worry that those units won’t make a large enough dent in the housing market.

Neighbors’ role in development

So, with the area in need of housing and many residents opposed to change, do municipalities need to reduce public participation in development decisions?

David Brooks, Lebanon’s planning director, isn’t so sure.

Brooks, who came to Lebanon in 2005 after holding positions in Vermont, Oregon and Idaho, said it’s true that about 95% of people who attend land use meetings oppose projects. And some, he said, deliberately try to “gum up” the process for as long as possible.

Those feelings are understandable, though, the planner said. People feel like they have a stake in their neighborhood’s future.

“It’s rightly a public process,” Brooks said, adding that you can’t just disenfranchise people when considering development.

A 2018 paper by Boston University researchers found that nearly two-thirds of residents in eastern Massachusetts who spoke about proposed housing developments opposed them, while just 14% were in support.

The researchers — who combed through three years’ worth of meeting minutes from 97 cities and towns — also estimated that the typical person who speaks at land use meetings is more likely to be white, is eight years older than the average resident, has lived in a home more than five years longer than average, and is more than twice as likely to vote.

“The people who show up to these meetings are overwhelmingly opposed to construction of new housing, in ways that are way out of whack with public opinion,” Katherine Levine Einstein, one of the study’s authors, told the Boston Globe. “And, socioeconomically, they are not representative of their communities.”

Some experts have theorized that homeownership, and looking at homes as an investment, also leads people to oppose new development over often unfounded fears that their property values could decrease. While others believe opposition can sometimes come in the form of thinly veiled classism and racism.

For her part, Mastro said she opposed the Bank Street project in Lebanon mainly because of its size and over worries that the apartments there wouldn’t be truly affordable.

Mastro added that she also was a vocal supporter of Visions for Creative Housing Solutions and its efforts to support adults with developmental disabilities on her street.

Residents take on other projects

Officials say it’s not just housing that can be held up by neighbors but also building and infrastructure projects, such as Dartmouth College’s 70,000-square-foot indoor practice facility.

At the urging of neighbors, the Hanover Planning Board in 2016 rejected the school’s plan to build the facility on land it owns near athletic fields off South Park Street.

That set off a yearslong court battle that ended in 2018 when the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the Planning Board decision relied too much on “personal feelings and ad hoc decision-making.”

Kelly Dent, who became a voice for neighborhood opposition during proceedings, said she sold her home after the court decision.

“And the people who bought our house did comment that it was huge,” she said.

Dent said the Dartmouth facility was “pretty big for the neighborhood.”

And while some people could see the community’s response as NIMBYism, she said, it’s important to remember that residents weren’t consulted before the town review.

“I knew we weren’t going to prevail, but we fought the good fight,” Dent said, who now lives near the Frances C. Richmond Middle School.

But oftentimes, neighbors don’t see a drastic change from developments that once sparked controversy.

When brothers Patrick and William Brown in 2016 proposed turning the former Gove Hill Retreat in Thetford into a wilderness therapy center, neighbors immediately organized against it.

During Development Review Board meetings, some argued that Confluence, the Brown’s company, would put the community at risk by introducing “troubled youths.”

Others hypothesized that runaway patients could steal from residents, taking money or vehicles to make their escape.

At the time, Police Chief Michael Evans recalls, a Selectboard member joked that neighbors were actually worried about vikings, who would go pillaging through Thetford.

“That was almost the extent of what we were listening to people predicting,” he said.

Since the therapy center opened about six years ago, Evans said, police have been called maybe six to eight times, with most of those calls resulting from an inadvertently tripped fire alarm.

“From the law enforcement side, it has not been a burden,” he said. “It’s almost like it’s not even there.”

Carol Abby, an Upper Valley Road resident who expressed concerns about the center in 2016, also said she wouldn’t know the facility is active based on its operations.

“There’s been no negative effect and I haven’t heard anything about it,” she said. “It’s fortunate it played out OK.”

Zoning, policymakers also play a role in delaying development

While neighbors can offer boisterous opposition to projects, some experts say they’re not really what’s holding up development. Instead, they argue, it’s the NIMBY-style regulations that communities impose on themselves.

For instance, Hanover requires “major subdivisions” to set aside a 10-acre minimum lot for a single-family home in its rural zoning district.

That might preserve some land, but it also hampers the creation of new, affordable housing, said retired Dartmouth economics professor William Fischel.

“The problem is that large tracts can’t be used to develop,” said Fischel, who also sits on Hanover’s Zoning Board. “So, the land that’s available is quite scarce.”

“We kind of make our own problems by taking so much land off the market,” he added.

The role that local municipalities play in hampering development, particularly housing, was acknowledged by some lawmakers in Concord who put forward an omnibus bill to tackle the issue earlier this year.

That bill, HB 586, sought to increase tax incentives for workforce housing and provide more training for land use officials in charge of decision-making.

But while the House Municipal and County Government Committee advanced the legislation in a bipartisan vote, it was ultimately killed before the full House.

“It was very unfortunate that it didn’t pass. It would have helped pave the way for more affordable housing in New Hampshire, which is something that we desperately need,” said state Rep. Laurel Stavis, D-Lebanon, who sits on the Municipal and County Government Committee.

“When the median price of a single-family home in New Hampshire has now passed $400,000 and rents are $1,600 to $2,000 a month, I don’t know of any business that can hope to hire new employees and expect them to live anywhere near (where) they work,” added Stavis, who also sits on the Lebanon Planning Board.

Some planners also attribute conflicts to New England culture, which is more reliant on local control and resident input to steer development than other parts of the country.

Peter Gregory, executive director of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, said residents here place a high value on participatory government.

“Northern New England has a really strong tradition of local control and citizen involvement, including at Town Meeting, where people feel an obligation to participate,” he said.

Gregory, who has more than three decades of experience planning in Vermont, used to work in Florida during a time of “explosive growth.”

“General citizens had no idea or really no say in a lot of that,” he said.

Gregory advocates for a mix of both long-term planning that’s guided by professionals with room for local interpretation and decision-making.

That’s often done in a community’s master plan, a guiding document that is crafted with resident input and sets out a community’s goals and needs.

Every Upper Valley municipality has one, Gregory said, and they provide guidelines and guardrails to help decision-makers.

Whether a community has a well-written master plan that residents had a hand in crafting, he said, can often be the difference between productive land use meetings and those that generate controversy and animosity.

“There shouldn’t be too many surprises,” Gregory said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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