Buffer zone supporters picket at State House

Supporters of a state law allowing buffer zones around abortion clinics line up outside the hearing room as the House Judiciary Committee considers a bill to repeal the law.

CONCORD — An attempt by a group of Republican lawmakers to repeal a state law allowing buffer zones around abortion clinics was soundly rejected by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in a bipartisan 14-4 vote.

The repeal bill will now go to the House floor with a recommendation that it is “inexpedient to legislate.”

The state Legislature passed the law in 2015, prohibiting people from protesting within 25 feet of abortion clinics, but health centers never implemented the buffer zones as court challenges were pending.

In early 2017 a federal appeals court upheld the law, ruling that until a clinic actually imposes a buffer zone, it has no case to act on.

The buffer zone opponents acknowledge that no zones have been drawn and their protests have not been impeded, but want the law revoked on a “preemptive” basis as a violation of free speech. They also said the experience of the past five years shows the law is not needed.

“Even though this law has been in effect for five years, no clinic has put these provisions into play. If the need is so compelling I would have thought that with five years to put it into effect, it would have been done. I don’t see the need for it,” said Mark McLean, R-Manchester, one of four Republicans on the committee to vote for the repeal bill.

Democratic Rep. Debra Altschiller of Stratham made the motion to recommend against the bill, saying, “Health centers need the ability provided in the current buffer zone law to ensure the privacy and safety of patients. All people seeking health care should be free of intimidation and harassment.”

Republican Rep. Kurt Wulper of Strafford, one of several sponsors of the bill, predicted that if the buffer zones are ever implemented, the bill will be challenged in court and defeated.

“The people are well-prepared and briefs are already written for it to be enjoined,” he said. “And it will be enjoined because it is close to the laws in other states that have been struck down.”

The law affects clinics in Greenland, Keene, Manchester and Concord. Judges at both the U.S. District Court and Court of Appeals left open the possibility that the law could be challenged on its merits, if any of the clinics ever decide to take advantage of it.

Housing appeals board

The committee made short work of HB 104, a bill calling for a Housing Appeals Board in the Attorney General’s office to hear appeals of final decisions by local land use boards on new housing development.

In a 17-0 vote, the committee recommended the bill be killed.

“This bill attempts to establish a state planning board and zoning board,” said Wuelper. “I think its scope and responsibilities would be enormous and undefined … It would have the authority to overrule local zoning decisions by any zoning board, planning board, or whatever. This totally defeats the purpose of our current land use laws.”

The bill was supported by the state Business and Industry Association and others who feel restrictive zoning ordinances are impeding the state’s ability to address issues of affordability and supply in housing.

“There are many developers willing to build new units priced for workers and alleviate some of the pressure,” according to the BIA in a Dec. 15 op-ed.

“The bad news is many communities are putting up unnecessary roadblocks to construction of new houses and apartments. The opposition is often predicated on myths about overcrowding school systems, attracting undesirable people or urban sprawl. Statistics don’t support these myths.”