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New Hampshire House files Sununu-backed housing development bill

gsee Chris Sununu speaks to reporters during a press conference on Wednesday. (Ethan DeWitt-New Hampshire Bulletin)

NH House voted on Thursday to file a major overhaul of zoning requirements, dealing a blow to Gov. Chris Sununu and housing advocates’ efforts to accelerate development in the state.

In a close vote of 170 to 159, the House put Senate Bill 400 on the table, cutting off the chance for full debate.

“This bill would effectively destroy local zoning,” Rep. Kurt Wuelper, a Republican from Strafford, said in his final remarks before the vote. “This bill would force — ‘encourage’ — many districts in our state to pass, to permit development in violation of their master plans.”

Rep. Karen Umberger, a Republican from Conway, spoke in favor of the bill. “We had teachers in my school district who couldn’t find housing and didn’t take jobs,” she said. “Police officers, firefighters, municipal workers cannot afford housing in many of our communities, including mine.”

As originally proposed by Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Republican from Wolfeboro, SB 400 would have included a number of regulatory changes to incentivize or compel cities to speed up permitting processes for new developments. These changes included requiring a town or city to offer the same incentives for workforce housing as for housing older residents, requiring a land use board to give detailed written “findings of fact” explaining why it rejected a development proposal, and requiring zoning councils to approve or disapprove an application within 90 days in most cases.

But in a split vote last week, the House Municipal and County Affairs Committee chose to propose an amendment that would change some key provisions of the bill and add unrelated bills.

The committee added legislation to allow voters to impose budget caps on their school districts, a measure to ban municipal mask mandates and an amendment to reduce the responsibilities of city health officials and remove their authority over responses to the pandemic.

The tabling vote likely marks the end of the bill, which Sununu had championed before the entire House and Senate during his State of the State address in February. The bill would require a two-thirds vote to be removed from the table, and House deadlines require that all Senate bills be approved by the end of the day Thursday.

Reacting to the amendments on Wednesday, Sununu expressed frustration, saying “the House has really screwed up this bill.”

But he argued that a separate scheme passed this week, the “InvestNH” scheme, could still spur needed housing development in the state. This program would allocate $60 million in matching grants to eligible developers and $40 million in incentives to cities and towns to speed up developer approvals, including $5 million to help cities and towns hire help to change their zoning ordinances.

Sununu said this program could encourage cities to carry out zoning reviews even without a new statewide law.

“I think cities are going to have a big incentive to seize a huge financial opportunity,” Sununu said. “So while there may be some regulatory hurdles that are still in place, cities have a strong incentive to move quickly through their own hurdles to see projects through.”