Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Hive of Glass

Jackson is a nice little town. Colleagues from around the country are amazed when I tell them I live in a town with a two room schoolhouse. Jackson has a long history of hospitality. In the 1800’s, Jackson provided lodging for visitors to the area. There were hotels, boarding houses, and cottages. Families would come by train and spend the entire summer here. World War II put an end to those summers, and some of the grand hotels were boarded up for decades afterward. When I was a child visiting the area, Gray’s Inn and the Wentworth were quietly moldering. A fire claimed Gray’s Inn, but the Wentworth was mercifully restored. We are small, we are quaint, and many of our historic buildings are still standing, well used, and lovely. We want to keep that, and rightly so.

The unrestrained (and unsightly) growth and sprawl in Conway is spreading north, which is a matter of concern for those of us living north of the once scenic vista. A good master plan and good zoning regulations are important. Having no zoning can lead to disaster, as we’ve seen in Tamworth. This year the Jackson Planning Board has proposed the addition of something called “performance zoning,” which would be applied only to the “business overlay district,” which is essentially the area from the Bartlett town line north to the intersection of 16 and 16A, including the business “loop.” Performance zoning is being touted as being the kind of flexible regulation that would help us preserve the integrity and rural character of our town. Performance zoning sets two types of criteria for a project, absolute and relative. There are 10 absolute criteria that a project would have to meet, and 22 relative criteria. The relative criteria are judged on a point basis, and the points are scored: positive, negative, or neutral. The relative criteria seem to have been cut and pasted from some other town’s zoning regs. Points are awarded or subtracted for building sidewalks. (Psst – we have those already). Points are awarded or subtracted for of street parking behind or beside a building. (Pssst – restaurants need to have parking right out in front where it’s visible.) Clearly these criteria were not designed specifically for Jackson. Clearly this isn’t so flexible, either.

The new regulations would apply to commercial use developments, cluster single family developments, multi-family residential developments, and multi-family buildings in excess of two dwelling units, in the village overlay district. It’s curious that the planning board would encourage residential development in the commercial zone. Every town needs a center, if there is to be community. Norman Rockwell painted quaint little towns, and in those paintings there are businesses; barber shops, diners, and stores. Those hotel rooms bring folks to town that spend money in the restaurants and shops, and go home, without becoming a tax burden. The businesses, in turn, donate gift certificates and other services for fundraisers and charities. They also provide employment and a gathering place for folks in town to meet and chat. As time goes on, and climate change affects our area even more, having small, one of a kind businesses in the loop can only be an asset to the town.

The “development” of downtown Jackson should be done with the utmost care. Unfortunately, the performance zoning regulations we’ll be voting on next week are not the tools we need. Other NH towns have performance zoning in place, but they are in urban areas – like Bow. The Jackson Planning Board is not elected. They are appointed by the selectmen. No one has oversight over them. There are no checks and balances in place. Under the proposed zoning changes, a project would go to the planning board for approval. If it is not approved, there would be no appeals process. An appeal would go straight to superior court. So, a property owner in the loop would be paying double in an appeals process – paying for his/her own lawyer, while paying taxes going to the town lawyer. This only applies to businesses in the loop. Businesses outside of the “overlay district” would be paying the same taxes and allowed greater flexibility for development or projects on their property. Conceivably, the Wildcat Tavern could be denied a permit to build the same woodshed that would be permitted at the Christmas Farm Inn. This is not only unneighborly, it’s downright discriminatory.

It’s unfortunate that the proposed changes have been done so hastily. Local business owners were not involved in the discussion, or the writing. In fact, in the narrative, property owners on the loop are referred to as “an imminent threat.” That kind of divisive language isn’t going to help maintain the sense of community Jackson has always enjoyed. The haste is based on fear of “people from away” building big ugly things. There was a rumor that a downtown property might be sold, and developed as a hotel. Instead of making that a positive thing, the selectmen and planners chose to go on the defensive. Wal-Mart can’t build in Jackson. Neither can a big hotel chain. Jackson has no town septic, and has some stringent limits on what goes into the soil. That provides a huge measure of protection. Bow adopted performance zoning when they put in town water and septic.

A single family mcmansion could be built in the overlay district, without having to apply to the performance zoning guidelines. A huge tacky pink stucco structure, looking completely alien to the village – larger than life and twice as ugly– and as a single family dwelling, it would not be prevented. In fact there isn’t anything in the zoning as it’s written that addresses how a building looks, or how it is landscaped. Regulations stipulating look, superior construction materials, energy efficiency, and landscaping would make sense. What the planning board has given Jackson voters, with the endorsement of the selectmen, does not make sense.

We have a choice. We can move forward in haste and get something that discriminates against some property owners, something that isn’t specific to our town, something that creates divisiveness and discord – and we can try to change it afterward. Or we can vote NO on performance zoning, and begin the process again, this time with input from business owners and other interested folks. We can create a plan that is specific to downtown Jackson, one that builds community and fosters goodwill. Hardly a difficult choice, is it? See you at the polls.

A village is a hive of glass, where nothing unobserved can pass.” Charles H. Spurgeon

From the March 10, 2006 Conway Daily Sun. Get out and vote, fellow Jacksonites!

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