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State agencies object to bill requiring local review, approval for government building projects

State agencies objected yesterday to a Concord-backed bill that would give local planning and zoning boards the power to approve or veto building projects by the state and local governments.

Rep. Katherine Rogers, a Concord Democrat, introduced the legislation at the request of city officials. Deputy City Manager for Development Carlos Baia testified in favor of it yesterday before the House Municipal and County Government Committee, as did officials from Boscawen and the New Hampshire Municipal Association.

They said the state and other governments should have to follow the same local land-use regulations as do private developers. Concord, Baia said, is especially sensitive to such concerns as the state capital and center of government activity.

But representatives from four state agencies – the Department of Resources and Economic Development, the Department of Administrative Services, the Community College System of New Hampshire, and the Fish and Game Department – said requiring projects to go through local review and obtain local approval would cause delays and cost overruns.

“We’re responsible for 1,176 titles of land comprising 220 public reservations, totaling over 173,000 acres in nearly all of the state’s towns. . . . Given the context of DRED ownership and the number of projects we implement annually, we’re very concerned that this legislation will result in unnecessary project delays, increased project costs, even prevention of projects that are implemented for the benefit of the state and the greater public good as a whole,” said Phil Bryce, DRED’s interim commissioner.

And the attorney general’s office, while not taking a formal position on the bill, expressed concerns about its potential effects on every state agency from the adjutant general’s office to the state Liquor Commission’s retail stores.

“I view this change, this potential change in the law, as an erosion of the sovereign authority of the state,” said Senior Assistant Attorney General Michael Brown. “Clearly, that is something that you don’t want to take lightly, and I would encourage the committee to think about that as it goes about its business.”

Current law allows a local board to hold a public hearing on projects undertaken in the town or city by the state or another government, but its recommendations are nonbinding. By contrast, most private projects must be reviewed and approved by the local planning board, and often the zoning board of adjustment as well, to ensure they comply with local rules before construction can begin.

Rogers’s bill would require governmental projects to conform with local planning and zoning rules, and to go through the same review process. It does state that if a denial by the local board “substantially interferes with the governmental entity’s ability to perform its statutory purpose,” that ruling “shall become nonbinding.”

Rogers told the committee that the bill isn’t intended to quash state projects, target specific agencies or empower “not-in-my-backyard” efforts.

“No one’s a target. This is not an angry bill,” Rogers said. “This is a bill simply to ask that we bring government entities into the same realm (as) any private entity, that they come to the table the same way” and “go through the same steps.”

Rep. Lorrie Carey, a Boscawen Democrat and cosponsor of the bill, said the legislation would have benefits for her town, which is home to the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery, the Merrimack County jail and the county nursing home.

“We actually have more non-taxed land than just about any other town in the state, and it does have an impact on us for planning purposes, zoning purposes and, obviously, tax purposes,” Carey said. “This bill, I think, tries to provide an even playing field.”

But the state agencies were joined yesterday by House Republicans in opposing the legislation. Rep. Shawn Jasper of Hudson, the House GOP whip, told the committee that the Republican leadership opposes the bill as written and believes the current nonbinding review process is sufficient.

Rogers and Baia both said the bill’s language could use changes, and they said they’d be willing to work with the committee on improvements.

The Municipal and County Government Committee heard about an hour of testimony yesterday but didn’t discuss any amendments or vote on the bill. When it does, the committee’s recommendation will send the legislation to the full House for a vote.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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