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November 10. 2012 9:21PM

Some see strings attached to federal funds for master plans

Nine regional planning commissions in the state are using federal funds to develop master plans to improve New Hampshire’s economic competitiveness, but some critics claim there are too many federal stipulations tied to the program.

Last year, the Nashua Regional Planning Commission applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of the nine regional planning commissions in the state. It was awarded a $3.4 million federal Sustainable Communities Grant to be dispersed among the commissions during the next three years.

“There is a great need … to think ahead and plan for the future, especially in these transitional economic times,” said Kerrie Diers, executive director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission. “There are changing demographics taking place in New Hampshire and we really need to rethink our economic engine.”

But not everyone is sold on the Sustainable Communities Initiative, as skeptics argue that the program gives federal authorities too much control in making local zoning decisions that could potentially impact communities throughout the state.

Some towns, including Rochester, Rye, Hampstead, Brookfield and others, have declined to sign a partnership agreement, or memorandum of understanding, with their assigned regional planning commission to participate in the initiative.

Ed Comeau, who represents the town of Brookfield on the Strafford Regional Planning Commission, admits that he has reservations about HUD’s Sustainable Communities Initiative and the subsequent Granite State Future project, which is a culmination of the different plans that will be created by the state’s nine regional planning commissions.

“While I agree with the concept of regional planning, this initiative is not about regional planning. This is about a federal agreement to basically standardize a planning method throughout the entire United States so that we have a central plan in place from the top — that is my problem,” said Comeau. “This planning effort could have regional impacts.”

The grant

Last year, HUD awarded a total of $96 million in Sustainable Communities Grants, with an ultimate goal of helping regions improve their economic competitiveness by connecting housing with good jobs, quality schools and transportation, according to a release.

The grants are part of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which represents an association between HUD, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that the agencies' policies, programs and funding consider affordable housing, transportation and environmental protection together.

"This interagency collaboration gets better results for communities, and uses taxpayer money more efficiently," said a HUD release issued when the grants were announced.

"Coordinating federal investments in infrastructure, facilities and services meets multiple economic, environmental and community objectives with each dollar spent. The partnership is helping communities across the country to create more housing choices, make transportation more efficient and reliable, reinforce existing investments and support vibrant and healthy neighborhoods that attract businesses."

The grant, according to Diers, allows the Nashua Regional Planning Commission to create a more thorough and comprehensive master plan, which it is required to produce, regardless of whether federal money is awarded.

While the Sustainable Communities Initiative may seem like a normal planning program, Ken Eyring of Windham maintains that the scope of the project plans for virtually every aspect of a citizen's life, including education, property lines, water, culverts and more.

Selectmen and town councils throughout New Hampshire, local planning departments and even state legislators have been excluded from the Granite State Future process, said Eyring, who argued it has been a disingenuous effort that places federal input directly into state programs.

"It dramatically affects our form of governance, and the more I read about it, the more concerns I have," said Eyring.

David Preece, executive director of the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission, stressed the plan is only advisory, and that there are no federal mandates attached to it.

"It only gives recommendations to the local communities of what they can do if they want to," explained Preece. "Nothing is going to force them to do it. They are given tools to help implement it, but the option is always there."

Master plans

The final plans, once complete, will align federal planning and investment resources that mirror the local and regional strategies for achieving sustainable communities, according to a brochure for the Granite State Future project.

Other goals of the plan include reducing social and economic disparities for the low-income, minority communities and other disadvantaged populations; decrease transportation-related emissions; decrease overall combined housing and transportation costs per household; and increase proportion of low- and very low-income households within a 30-minute transit commute of major employment centers.

Bud Heinrich of Moultonboro has serious concerns about some of these goals.

"When I think about the word 'sustainable,' I think of clean water and clean air, not about being forced to zone cluster housing or establish walkable communities where I would have to leave my car in the garage and have my property protected as open space for wildlife," said Heinrich. "The federal government has to be restrained from trying to shove these concepts down our throat. It is quite an invasive situation. They are trying to buy our attitude with our own money."

While there may be a $3.4 million grant, it will take a lot more money to implement these concepts, according to Heinrich, who contends that HUD will end up writing the planning goals for New Hampshire communities.

Diers says that is inaccurate, stressing public meetings will be held throughout the next several months to collect input from residents throughout the state.

The skeptics

Eyring said the program is designed to ultimately produce a land use and resource planning document that will greatly diminish property rights, redistribute wealth and ensure equal outcomes - not equal opportunity - for every person across America, according to his online blog post.

Eyring, who is a member of the Southern New Hampshire 912 Project, a nonpartisan group of Windham residents with conservative founders, alleges that the program comes with a predefined framework for implementation that states there will be substantial involvement from HUD, and that it comes with mandatory outcomes that must be built into the final plans.

Diers explained that the term "mandatory outcomes" used by HUD requires that regional planning commissions consider and evaluate a certain number of policy outcomes.

"HUD recognizes that diverse regional experiences exist across the country. As such, the agency is allowing significant latitude for regions to set the parameters for the desired outcomes resulting from adoption of a regional plan," says the Granite State Future brochure. "Ultimately, (regional planning commissions) adopt the priorities and outcomes that are appropriate for their regions.

"To clarify, HUD has no oversight authority to determine the recommendations or policies established."

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Kimberly Houghton may be reached at khoughton@newstote.com.


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