Hanover Planning Board OKs church planned for Greensboro Road

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-08-2023 4:20 AM

Modified: 12-08-2023 3:35 PM


HANOVER — Despite their own concerns, members of the town Planning Board this week approved a proposal to build a two-story, 21,500-square-foot church for up to 415 worshipers in a residential neighborhood on Greensboro Road.

Because of a new state law concerning land used for religious purposes, the Planning Board was prohibited from considering criteria that are typically part of its review process, including lighting, parking, stormwater drainage and traffic management.

“When I was appointed to this Planning Board by the Selectboard, I was asked to take an oath (where) I affirmed that I would comply with and uphold New Hampshire’s constitution and laws,” Vice Chairwoman Beth Esinhart said on Tuesday before voting to approve the plan from Christ Redeemer Church. “That did not mean some laws, nor did it mean only those laws with which I agree. Each member of this board took the same oath.”

Chris Audino, executive pastor at Christ Redeemer, said that he is happy about the project’s approval, which the church has been seeking for years, but he was cognizant of the effect of the law on town officials.

“Certainly, we are delighted, but we also acknowledge that this is hard for the Planning Board, and neighbors as well,” Audino said in a phone interview.

The project has been under consideration since at least 2016, and previous iterations of the plan were opposed by neighbors on Greensboro Road.

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Later at Tuesday’s meeting, the Planning Board unanimously supported filing a petition that asks state legislators to repeal and replace the law known as NH RSA 674:76, which exempts properties used for religious purposes from many local planning and zoning regulations. 

Signed into law last year by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, the law states that “no zoning ordinance or site plan review regulation shall prohibit, regulate or restrict the use of land or structures primarily used for religious purposes.” The only exceptions are for building height, yard sizes, lot area, setbacks, open space and building coverage.

In its approval of the Christ Redeemer project, the board included a disclaimer that said the board’s decision was “based solely on RSA 674:76” and not because the site plan met or addressed the town’s review criteria.

The petition, drafted by Hanover Planning and Zoning Director Rob Houseman, argues that the Republican-sponsored law creates an imbalance “where religious land use is subject to fewer regulations than its non-religious counterparts.”

While board members doubted the petition would result in a change to the law, they said they hoped it would encourage officials in other towns to express their concerns.

“(W)e are going to be the first town that says (this is) untenable and doesn’t work for us,” said board member Kristine McDevitt. “And (we’re) hopeful others will do the same.”

McDevitt said the law sets a bad precedent by undermining the regulatory authority of municipalities.

“I think it turns our whole idea of planning on its head,” McDevitt said.

While understanding the town’s concern, Audino said the new law helps to address past issues in which groups seeking to build churches have sometimes been treated with discrimination by local boards, whose rulings appear based on the intended use of a property rather than objective evidence.

“This legislation was approved for a reason,” Audino said. “It was established to protect citizens from subjective ruling from local authorities.”

In 2019, Christ Redeemer Church successfully appealed a ruling by Hanover Zoning Board of Adjustment. In permitting the church to operate in a residential neighborhood, the board imposed several restrictions, including reducing the church’s maximum occupancy, limiting the operating hours and requiring the sanctuary windows remain closed during church services.

In April, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that these restrictions were not allowable because they were not supported by evidence presented to the board. For example, when restricting the operating hours, the Zoning Board did not show evidence of a noise or traffic impact. In addition, the board’s reduction of the maximum occupancy contradicted what was actually allowed under the town’s own ordinance for places of worship, according to the ruling.

Audino noted that the church has previously submitted a traffic study, a noise study and a stormwater management plan, which have been “thoroughly reviewed” by previous town boards.

Even with the new state law, the church will need state  approval of its stormwater management plan, Audino said.

“From the beginning our intention has been to comply with all the town regulations,” Audino said. “And it’s our intent to engage in a civil conversation with anyone who wants to … But civility is the key.”

After requesting minor language revision thi s week, the Planning Board members plan to sign the final draft of the petition at a future meeting.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.