Growth divides Chester
Chester — Bryan and Laurie Moore found paradise on a little dirt road on the northern edge of town.
It was 1991, and a dip in the housing market gave the couple their chance to snatch up one of the oldest homes in Chester, a rural community of close to 4,500 residents. The house, a 1743 cape with three fireplaces and a birthing room, was fenced by woodland, with a porch that overlooked a sprawling vegetable farm.
Growth in NH
"I could sit on my porch and not see traffic go by all day," Laurie Moore said.
Today, the woods are gone. So, too, is the vegetable farm; a developer carved it up six years ago to make way for 10 new houses — massive colonials with acres of manicured lawn between each one.
Here, at this intersection, residents say they can see the future of their town — and, to an extent, of southern New Hampshire.
"This is what you’re going to see," said Camilla Lockwood, a 25-year resident who sits on Chester’s planning board and conservation commission. "You’re going to see this beautiful old farmhouse and then these fancy subdivisions — the last crop."
Developers have found steady work in Chester, a town that shuns street lights, garbage pickup and sidewalks but perennially ranks among the fastest-growing communities in the state. Its population has more than doubled since 1980, and state planning officials predict that growth will continue well into the next decade.
Yet, in a recent survey distributed by the town’s planning department, residents were perfectly clear about their hopes for Chester: They want it to stay small.
"It is a charming town," said Deirdre Gordon, who lives in an antique farmhouse near the Moore homestead. "We have deer in our backyard, and coyotes. And the more you build, the more that goes away.
"You kind of lose that charm and become like every other town."
Gordon’s concerns are common throughout the state, but particularly in Hillsborough, Merrimack and Rockingham counties, where most of New Hampshire’s new residents are clustering. State planners say another 145,000 people will be making their homes in those counties by 2020.
That’s tantamount to adding a town the size of Weare to the region each year.
The influx threatens to chip away at New Hampshire’s remaining forests, farms and wetlands, transforming rural towns into suburban ones. Already, in areas where developers are building single-family homes on multi-acre tracts, open space is disappearing at a much faster rate than the population is growing.
"The last thing we want is to turn out to be another subdivision of Massachusetts, of greater Boston. And that could happen," said David Preece, executive director of the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission.
A 2000 report by the Office of State Planning warned New Hampshire’s population growth, which continues to outstrip growth in the rest of New England, was soaking up open space and depressing village and town centers. In many areas, residents complained the towns were losing their identities, and starting to look alike.
Preece, who has been advising towns to adopt new zoning and planning strategies to help absorb tomorrow’s growth, has a bleak vision for southern New Hampshire: "a sprawl with houses on one to three acres, and with commercial (buildings) and big-box stores on every intersection.
"That’s if nothing happens," he said.
Open space debate
The solution, he and other planning officials say, is to promote open-space development — or, more crudely, cluster development. Under that plan, developers would be encouraged to build smaller housing lots in tighter spaces while preserving vast expanses of adjacent open land.
So far, the idea has not caught fire. Chester and Pelham, for instance, have each asked voters to require open-space developments. Time and again, the voters have said no.
"People don’t want to be told what they can do with their land," said Cynthia Robinson, planning director in Chester. "They want their own piece of the rock."
The town of Bow, which is projected to see some of the highest growth in southern New Hampshire, has been encouraging open-space development for all of a decade, but has had no more than three takers in that time, according to Bill Klubben, the town’s director of community development.
If the trend continues, Klubben estimated, Bow stands to lose one-third of its remaining open space over the next 15 years.
"Slowly, the rural character of New Hampshire, the atmosphere and environment that New Hampshire is known for, is being taken away, and it’s very frightening," Preece said.
In Chester, the newer houses tend to look a lot like the old ones. Many feature crushed-gravel driveways, wood shingles and long stone walls along the roadside, which may be left unpaved.
The cumulative effect is quaint and charming houses that once bordered vast green spaces are now losing their views, and gaining new neighbors in similarly quaint and charming houses.
Lockwood, who’s been watching these developments for more than two decades, accepts this trend as Chester’s destiny. It’s inevitable, she said, as families continue flooding the town’s borders.
"I don’t think you can have growth without a lot of things changing," she said. "It’s like a person who gains 300 pounds. I don’t care how they dress — they’re going to look different."