For one town, tight state deadlines among barriers to affordable housing relief

By: - August 8, 2022 5:48 am

The Dunkin’ off Exit 9 in Warner. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Ben Osgood admits it: The proposed housing complex, pitched for Warner, is big. Three stories tall, with 24 apartments, the brown and cream-colored building would tower over the Dunkin’ it would sit behind, just off Exit 9 on Interstate 89.

“It is a large-scale building,” said Osgood, a senior engineer at Ranger Engineering Group, which helped design the project. “We’re trying to make it blend into the area and be more colonial to fit the area – nothing really modern and sleek. Just something that you might find, you know, in New England.” 

Erin Murphy isn’t convinced. “Hard no,” the nine-year Warner resident wrote below a Facebook post presenting the proposal. 

“My knee-jerk reaction to it is: That’s a business district. It’s a horrible place for apartment housing,” Murphy said in an interview. “For the town, aesthetically, it’s an unpleasing large structure where there should be a business, not an apartment.” 

The tension is nothing new. With any proposed housing development in New Hampshire, winning over public opinion is as crucial a task for developers as gaining approval from planning and zoning boards.

But for this proposal in Warner, developers are facing another pressure point: a hard September deadline for federal assistance through the state’s InvestNH housing program. The program is intended to expedite workforce housing developments, offering up to $3 million each to developers who meet its criteria. And Warner seems like an ideal candidate: Some residents are already advocating for more housing, and its planning board chairman is a top official at a key state housing agency. 

But tight deadlines – and requirements that developments be nearly shovel-ready in order to receive the funding – mean that not every proposed housing expansion this summer is going to get the green light. And Warner’s is a long shot. 

In a 31-day sprint from the initial proposal on Aug. 1 to the Sept. 2 deadline, Osgood and the main developers, Comet LLC, are trying to defy those odds. 

“What is driving me is the Sept. 2 InvestNH deadline,” said Ben Frost, the planning board chairman. “I’m really concerned that we as a board can’t meet that.”

At just under 3,000 residents, Warner’s atmosphere is distinctly small-town, with boutique markets and small restaurants lining its main street. 

The town also has a commercial area, just off the interstate, which includes a Market Basket, fast food restaurants, and gas stations. That district is known as the “intervale.” 

Despite the instinct to protect Warner’s charming, small-town image, concerns over statewide workforce shortages and inadequate housing have driven some residents to advocate for more housing in the town. For months, those residents have pressed the planning board to create a volunteer committee to review the town’s zoning ordinances and find new housing opportunities. 

The idea to place the proposed site behind Dunkin’ comes from the developer, Comet LLC, not from Warner residents. Most residents had never seen the plans before an Aug. 1 planning board meeting, when Osgood made an initial presentation to the board. Comet LLC is the same developer that brought the town its Dunkin’, which was only finalized in 2021.

The development would consist of 24 two-bedroom apartments, joined together in a long, rectangular building with external stairs and multiple entryways. It would connect to the rest of town via a single access road behind the town’s Dunkin’. Sewer and water lines would be extended from the Dunkin’ property to the site. The road to get to the development would cross wetlands, some of which would be filled. 

The developers still have to formally present the proposal to the town – they’re facing an Aug. 8 deadline to do so. That would provide for a statutorily mandated 21-day waiting period before the hearing, which would in turn give just enough time for the planning board and zoning board to approve it by Sept. 2, the deadline to apply for the state funds. 

The project will also need the town’s zoning board to grant a special exception to build workforce housing in the area. 

Osgood said the development would serve the critical need of housing for workers who can’t afford other housing units. And he said the InvestNH assistance program is key in making the whole project feasible. 

“As we all know, it’s very difficult to build in today’s climate with the prices, and to rent at a reasonable rent or rent that’s affordable by people who make the median income or less for the area,” he told the planning board. 

And Osgood argued that putting the development in the town’s commercial district would bring its own benefits. “It’s reasonably close to the village, but it’s very close to the intervale,” he said. “And, you know, all of the shopping, highway, everything you need is right there.”

Reaction from residents has been mixed. A rendered image of the development posted on an unofficial town Facebook page – “Let’s Talk About Warner” – drew nearly 200 comments by the end of the day, each passionate. 

Some are supportive of more housing, noting that it could help “teachers, nurses, physical therapists, plumbers” and others find stability and keep jobs in the area, even while noting they weren’t necessarily sold on the development’s particular details.

Others, like planning board member James Gaffney, had questions about the one-road entryway into the facility, and its size. 

“My first reaction – visceral reaction – was, ‘Wow, that’s a big building,” he said. “My other reaction was how are you going to deconflict an additional 50 cars going out of that Dunkin’ entrance at peak times of the day.” 

Murphy, who works for and commutes to Tufts Medical Center in Boston, moved to the area from Massachusetts to get closer to the outdoor activities she loves in New Hampshire. 

“The center of the town is very kind of idyllic, old New Hampshire, with beautiful homes and cute little businesses,” she said. “The town is made up of just a couple thousand people, really, so it’s people who are looking for that solitude, that rural life. However, it has that easy access to the highway so you can easily access amenities and jobs.” 

To her, the proposed building is incongruous with that small town feel, and would be a disservice to the people living there. But Murphy, like many others, said she doesn’t oppose more housing on principle.

“I’m all for affordable apartments and housing, for sure. But not there, next to a Dunkin’ Donuts and a gas station,” she said.

Frost, the planning board chair, is an advocate of affordable housing, too. In his day job, he works as deputy executive director of Housing New Hampshire, which distributes federal housing aid. He’s intimately familiar with the InvestNH program, which Gov. Chris Sununu and Department of Business and Economic Affairs Commissioner Taylor Caswell have said will easily distribute its $50 million in housing subsidies this fall. 

But the state’s tight deadlines mean that even in communities open to the idea of affordable housing, the assistance may not work out for them, Frost said. 

“It is technically and theoretically possible,” he said. “I would say extremely difficult.” 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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