With state funding, Boscawen begins to rethink housing in town
|Published: 11-11-2023 7:02 PM
A walk down Commercial Street in Boscawen foreshadows the town’s future – or at least that’s what Kellee Easler likes to think.
It may not seem like much today. The street is the site of a former leather tannery that left behind such a mess the Environmental Protection Agency was called in to clean it up.
But earlier in September, two dozen residents joined Easler, who is the planning and community development director for the town, on a walk to envision what could become of the area.
A farmers market, a riverfront park, a destination for nearby rail trail users with restaurants and shops were all ideas that stemmed from the session.
“Hopefully, Commercial Street will be able to be redeveloped into something absolutely gorgeous because as nasty as it was previously as a tannery, it has so much potential,” said Easler. “We’d love to see some small restaurants and shops, a place for people to come and spend time with their family and friends, with recreation as well.”
The town has some assistance to see these ideas come to fruition with state funding from the InvestNH grant program. Boscawen received $26,950 from the Housing Opportunity Planning portion of the program.
To re-imagine housing in Boscawen is to look at both the forest and the trees. Big picture, the town needs to update the housing chapter of its master plan, a document that has not been revisited since the early 2000s. But drilling down to what new housing actually looks like means getting specific – updating ordinances and drafting warrant articles that residents will ultimately vote on at Town Meeting.
“Boscawen understands that we need housing. We’re in a crisis everywhere,” said Easler. “Our businesses are new, we have a town forest now, we have beautiful recreational places that we didn’t emphasize back 20 years ago.”
With the state funding comes assistance from Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission, a nonprofit that helps municipalities map out land use, housing and transportation. Essentially, planners at the commission like Mike Tardiff, Matt Taylor and Matt Monahan have become extensions of the Boscawen town staff to see various housing projects through.
The housing chapter of a town’s master plan provides guidelines for development in town and forecasts what housing is needed in the area.
In 2002, the last time Boscawen updated the 304-page document, housing goals for the area included priorities that still stand true today – to expand affordable housing, provide senior-specific options, to prioritize conservation and the preservation of the rural character of the town.
With the updated housing chapter of the master plan, Easler wants to emphasize the need to support businesses with a variety of housing options.
In the Village District of town, along King Street, Easler envisions storefronts with apartments on top as one solution.
“We really are looking for a lot more businesses to come into town to help with the tax base,” she said.
However, a rush for development can also threaten some of the historic areas of a town, which is why a plan is important.
This year, the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance placed Boscawen’s King Street on its annual Seven to Save list, which calls attention to landmarks around the state that are threatened by neglect or development.
The Preservation Alliance said a 1.25-mile stretch of King Street had “one of the densest collections of Federal houses in New Hampshire, outside Portsmouth.”
“The town is struggling with balancing expected new uses and new investment with the architectural and land use elements that offer predictability and underlying character,” the Preservation Alliance wrote. “A village overlay district calls for retention of historic fabric but has fallen short of its goals.”
Other fears about expanding housing options include bringing more families to a town that could overwhelm the school system and drive up taxes.
But in Boscawen, school enrollment has steadily declined, while the median age of the town has increased. And as residents age, the large single-family homes become an unnecessary amount of space for elderly couples, who often struggle to maintain their properties. Communities have an inherent need to vary the types of available housing, said Taylor.
“There’s a mismatch really with housing – the demographic needs of an aging population and the need to bring in young families is mismatched with the type of housing that’s available in a good part of town,” Taylor said.
Two new changes to town ordinances might help provide increased variety. The first focuses on planned higher-density developments, small areas that are subdivided into a number of units, like putting four duplexes on one lot.
The second pertains to cluster developments. With a cluster, smaller housing lots are allowed to create a new neighborhood with more communal greenspace set aside. Along the Boscawen-Salisbury town line, a new cluster of 31 units was approved by the town planning board this fall, which could become more common, if that’s what residents wanted to see.
That’s the key piece of this housing puzzle – community support. Without it, the “not in my backyard” arguments of housing can ensue at planning board sessions. Or as town leaders think their ideas for development are innovative, a resident solution could go unheard.
Similar plans to spur more multi-unit housing in parts of Hopkinton were recently abandoned after pushback from residents.
But with community engagement like the vision walk along Commercial Street, Easler and the regional planning team are inviting residents to join the conversation of what housing is needed in Boscawen, and what that development should look like.
“The residents obviously need to buy into all of this. So far, we’ve seen that there’s been a positive response to it because people are struggling to find places,” Easler said.
“Hopefully, it’ll be a win-win for everybody.”
Editor’s note: The Concord Monitor, in partnership with Report for America and the Investigating Editing Corps, is working on a series of stories examining the pressure of property taxes and the effect of New Hampshire towns and cities taking and selling residents’ homes due to unpaid taxes. If you would like to be part of the series, please contact reporter Michaela Towfighi at firstname.lastname@example.org.