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January 02. 2013 11:45PM

Hooksett officials discuss changes to planning board

HOOKSETT - Amendments to Hooksett's town charter that would remove town staff from the planning board and significantly lower the requirements for some petitions are being considered.

Under the current town charter, the planning board is to consist of nine members, including three ex officio members - automatic voting members by virtue of their holding another office. Those three members are the town administrator, a second member of the town administration (currently Public Works Director Leo Lessard), and an annually appointed member of the town council (currently Susan Lovas Orr).

The proposed amendment would remove the town administrator and the administration staffer from the board, ending the automatic representation of town staff on the board.

The amendment was proposed by the town administrator, Dr. Dean Shankle himself. Shankle has stated that he feels "uncomfortable" with his voting powers as a nonresident staff member, noting that he had never before held a position on the planning board in his capacity as town administrator in other towns. Shankle has previously served as town administrator in Epping and Merrimack.

"Even though we might have good ideas professionally about how things should maybe go, it really should be residents of the town who make the final decisions on that," said Shankle. "I felt very uncomfortable a couple times where it was going to be our vote that was going to tip a decision."

Neither Shankle nor Lessard are Hooksett residents.

Shankle and the town administration would remain involved with the planning board, but in a more limited support role.

"It seems to me that the purpose of staff on a planning board should be to provide staff support, not to be able to take a vote," said Shankle.

The amendment would reduce the size of the board to seven members.

A second amendment would reduce the number of signatories required to put a petition on a ballot.

Should it pass, zoning and building code amendments and referendums on town council decisions would require only 25 signatures to be valid.

"In general we're trying to make it easier for people to get involved," said Shankle. "(The current requirement of) 2 percent is a lot."

The charter currently specifies that zoning and building code petitions must carry the signatures of at least 2 percent of registered voters in the town. Town council referendums require 20 percent of voters.

Hooksett has a little more than 9,000 registered voters, with the official tally having yet to be finalized after the registration surge leading up to the Nov. 6 election.

According to Shankle, in addition to assuaging voter concerns about steep petition requirements, the amendment is also designed in part to bring town policy closer in line with state law.

"For zoning amendments, state law says 25 (petitioners); the charter has always said something different," said Shankle. "So, to some degree, this is to bring it closer to that, though since we have a charter, we're not required to do so."

Both proposed amendments will be discussed at a public hearing during the Jan. 9 town council meeting at 6:30 p.m. in the Town Hall.

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Brendan Clogston may be reached at bclogston@newstote.com.


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