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The Dartmouth
May 30, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Students propose zoning amendments that could increase housing capacity in Hanover

The amendments, which were signed by 30 students, will be voted on in the town election in May.

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The College's decisions have historically implicated the town of Hanover, including through construction projects and business sales.

Thirty Dartmouth students have signed onto three amendments that propose changes in Hanover’s zoning rules. The amendments, which were submitted by David Millman ’23 and Nicolás Macri ’24, aim to alleviate the persistent housing shortage in Hanover and the wider Upper Valley and will be voted on by the public at the next town meeting on May 10.

The first petition, if approved, would amend the zoning code to limit legal housing occupancy to the number of bedrooms plus one additional person, instead of the current cap on more than three unrelated persons living together. The second would approve the Main Wheelock District, a proposal to increase housing density on West Wheelock Street that was approved by the town but rejected by voters in 2015. The third would allow the construction of student residences and solar panels without a special permit from the town.

The petitions will be discussed at a formal public hearing on March 1, when the planning board will vote on whether to recommend the petition to the voters of Hanover, according to Hanover planning, zoning and codes department director Robert Houseman. He added that while the petitions will be presented to registered voters in May regardless of the planning board’s decision, the ballot will state whether the planning board has approved or disapproved of the petitions.

Rohan Menezes ’23, who signed the petitions, noted that though he has not been personally affected by the housing shortage, some of his friends have struggled to find off-campus housing. He noted that increased demand for on-campus housing in the fall of 2021 resulted in the creation of a waitlist and lottery system, and “dozens of students had no other choice but to stay off-campus.”

“Every year, the situation is just getting worse, and we just don’t have a real long-term solution plan,”  Menezes said. “That’s why I supported the petitions.”

According to Millman and Macri, the petitions are a response to the College’s proposed housing development on Lyme Road, planning for which has since been postponed due to a faculty vote and pushback from local residents.

“Building housing that’s a 30-minute walk away from campus doesn’t just hurt students, it also hurts the greater Hanover community,” Macri said. “There are so many sites nearer to Dartmouth’s campus that are developable … It’s time to start building.”

Macri added that the College has previously cited “lengthy zoning processes” and the need to obtain a special exception as a difficulty in constructing new on-campus housing, which the third petition hopes to address. Houseman explained that to obtain a special exception, the College must demonstrate that the construction will not adversely impact the town’s infrastructure, including roads, sidewalks and nearby schools.

Houseman also noted that the town had attempted to pass a similar motion for new housing on West Wheelock Street in 2015, but the initiative failed at the town meeting despite educational outreach efforts and public hearings where the town solicited feedback from residents. 

He added that though the town has not figured out the exact differences between their original proposal and this petition amendment, it appears Millman’s petition proposes housing with a higher building height and occupancy calculation. 

“In 2015, we came up with an occupancy number which was vetted through the public process … now we have a petition with different numbers, and I don’t know how it got there,” Houseman said.

According to the petition, the planning board approved the “exact” language of the petition in 2015. In an emailed statement, however, Macri wrote that there are minor differences between the 2015 version and the amendment to ensure consistency within the ordinance, noting that the 2015 version “stated two differing height restrictions.”

Houseman said that when a petition amendment is submitted, the town cannot modify the proposed bill before it is voted on by the public. In contrast, he added, when the town plans a zoning amendment, it conducts several public workshops soliciting feedback to modify the terms of the amendment.

“Complicated zoning amendments … need to play out in a very public way so that those who are going to be impacted can understand, digest and participate in the formation of those regulatory tools,” Houseman said.

He added that the town staff advises the planning board to disapprove of any petitioned amendment “because there was no public process in generating the ordinance,” though the planning board has the power to decide whether to support the petitions in March.

Referencing the petition’s call to allow more than three unrelated individuals to live in the same unit, Millman said that in practice, “no landlord follows the [current regulations].”

“Students are afraid to report bad conditions because they’re afraid of being evicted, and they think that they can deal with this as long as they get to actually be in Hanover and go to school,” he added.

Houseman said if more than three unrelated people live in the same unit, the apartment must be reclassified as a lodging unit in accordance with NFPA 101, the New Hampshire state life safety code. He noted that the town’s zoning rules do not currently permit lodging units.

“[Lodging] triggers a different set of rules –– exit signs, wider corridors, hallways which are larger than conventional housing units,” he said. 

He noted that the Town has not determined the exact changes that are required to start permitting lodging units.

“If the vote passes and we know where it’s headed, we can then advise property owners on how to deal with this change,” he said.

Houseman noted that the town has attempted to address the housing shortage by building affordable senior housing, as well as collaborating with nonprofit Twin Pines Housing to build Summer Park Residences on Summer Street. He added that the town intends to propose another zoning amendment this year to build more workforce housing.

“The return on investment in Hanover is much higher with one house [than with building apartments],” he said. “The only way it gets done is if we interfere with the market conditions by acquiring land, donating land and assisting in the development of the site.”