Land Use regulations should be dynamic (to a certain point) and should not be considered set in stone (to a certain point). This is a theory that I learned over the years. It reflects the idea that land use regulations (zoning, site plan regulation and subdivision of land regulations) should not be drafted and forgotten. A community changes, and so should its regulations. These changes should not be just for change sake, but have substance and support behind them.
In 2006 the City began reviewing its land use chapter of our Master Plan. In New Hampshire, and much of the country Master Plans, AKA comprehensive Plans, are recommended for review every 5 to 10 years. A Master Plan looks at the past and future, by understanding where a community is, how it got there, and where it sees itself in 20 years.
Dover first began the Master Plan process in 1968 and has continued to update its Plan in the ensuing 40 years on a relatively consistent basis. The city has broken the overall Plan into several chapters and updates these chapters independently to ensure that the workload is spread evenly out over time. The land use chapter is the core chapter in the plan and is tied to all other chapters. It really sets the frame work for long term development of a community.
In 2006, city staff worked with the Planning Board to determine where the community saw itself developing in the 20 year time period. This was accomplished though a telephone survey, a visual preference survey and through interviews with key stakeholders. A group of volunteers, some Planning Board members, some not, met throughout 2007 to develop and draft the land use chapter.
Included in this chapter were some progressive and some conservative recommendations. The overall guiding principal was to create a development environment where new development reflects the values and context of the existing structures. This would be accomplished by updating regulations to adjust setbacks, building materials and lot dimensions.
Fast forward to May of 2008. The Planning Board broke itself into subcommittees to work on implementing changes to the land use regulations. The board followed a process it also followed in 2002/2003 when the same tasks were reviewed as a result of the 1998 Land Use Chapter. These subcommittees worked on environmental regulations, dimensional regulations, and quality of life regulations.
Over the past year, these subcommittees have pushed forward working on making changes large and small - tweaks to overhauls. Below is a summary of the proposed rezoning changes, as well as some staff housekeeping updates. Further posts will outline subdivision and site regulation proposals.
The group tasked with environmental regulations review the most recent State regulations (RSAs) to ensure conformity. The recommended changes this subcommittee has put forward include updates to the Conservation District. This district includes land surrounding streams, rivers, ponds, and other water courses. The district also includes areas of 20% or greater slope.
Included in the updates is language to bring conformity with the changes to the Comprehensive Shoreland Protection Act that the State of NH enforces. Additionally, a definition for slope has been added, and a description of how to determine where land is at a 20% slope or not has been developed.
The updates also rework and update the Conditional Use Process, to give the Conservation Commission some guidance for reviewing a request. This will assist the Planning Board as it reviews and ultimately deliberates a requested Conditional Use Permit.
Finally, the group reviewed the City's Wetlands Ordinance. This ordinance was reviewed for conformity, but also to clarify some areas., In 2002, the ordinance was changed by reducing certain setbacks and increasing others. In 2009 the focus was on clarifying how those changes had reflected development, and tweaked to ensure continued community growth in a respectful manner.
The dimensional group reviewed opportunities to adjust setbacks and other dimensional requirements. This group also looked at the build out scenario developed through the Land Use chapter and reviewed potential shifts in land use to accommodate the comm unites vision for growth.
The group reviewed opportunities to adjust zoning district placement and found that few areas needed attention. One area reviewed and recommended for adjustment is the area surrounding Exit 7 of the Spaulding Turnpike. These changes stem in part from an attempt to create 60+ units of residential on Mill Street. The community felt that this was too intense a development. One result of this rezoning process is the recognition that some development should be in this area, but at a less intensity. The resulting recommendation is to change the zoning for the area to the adjacent R-12 - medium density residential, whereby there could be 1 unit per 12,000 square feet of land. The accompanying recommendation is that the lots closest to Central Avenue should be a commercial zone, similar to the area at the intersection of Locust Street and central Avenue.
A further area rezoning suggested is the combination of multi-family residential districts to create less confusion between the 5 existing zones. In review the land use tables, it became clear that the City could combine 5 zones into 2 zones, and still offer variety and diversity in housing stock.
Another dimensional proposals include reducing front setbacks, and in some areas using the average setbacks for neighboring houses as a guide for determining front setbacks. This recommendation is coupled with increased rear setbacks to encourage larger usable rear yards. Moreover, a proposal is to set a set amount of wetlands buffer that can be counted as part of the yard to ensure that there is usable yard space.
Finally, the dimensional group also recommended a proposal for flexible reuses of the I-1 - restricted industrial zones. These are older factory spaces that exist in the inner city, that are ready for re-development and might benefit from diverse uses allowed in exchange for more context sensitive aesthetics and setbacks.
Form Based Code
In addition to the work the committees have been undertaking, there has also been a consul ant working to revise the downtown zoning to create development that is more context sensitive. This zoning style, known as form based code, looks to place stronger focus on form and less on function. The central business core would encourage multiple story buildings with durable materials and parking hidden behind the building, placing focus on the first floor on non-residential uses.
The consultant has worked over the past year to interview stakeholders, and held two charettes to understand what the community character of Dover is. This process has been very intense and has provided opportunity to preserve the past and enhance it as we move to the future.
When the staff make recommendations they tend to editorial in nature. This is the case in 2009 as well. Last year the City Manager's budget moved building inspection services to the Fire Department. As an outgrowth of that, the Building Official is no longer the Zoning Administrator. Many of the staff changes are an effort to reinforce that change.
Additionally, staff has taken cues from other communities, and is suggesting that all definitions in the Zoning Code be in one section and be identified in capital letters throughout the chapter. This will signify that a word is a definition.
Moreover, staff was inspired by the tables generated by the consultant for the Form Based Code, and has revamped the table of dimensional regulations and the tables of uses to be more user friendly and navigable.
Finally, the staff is recommending some minor changes to the sign ordinance, extraction ordinance, and clarified the amendment procedures to ensure proper public participation is in place for future changes to the chapter.
All of these regulations can be found at the Planning Department's web page www.dover.nh.gov/planhome.htm