Planning for New Hampshire’s future
In a town still coming to terms with giant retail chains and traffic jams, a portentous silence hangs above the sand dunes and gravel pits that lie outside the central strip.
Residents rarely see this space, which quieted years ago when Hooksett’s mining industry dried up. It’s a vast gray desert on a landscape that has otherwise exploded with shopping centers, housing developments and near-constant gridlock.
But to townies like Harold Murray, the desert is more ominous than any new Wal-Mart or strip mall. Murray sees this open land as proof that Hooksett’s growth — impressive as it has been — is only just beginning.
"They’re going to develop it," Murray, 72, said while driving past the mountainous piles of snow-caked sand.
"Do I like it? Hell, no, I don’t like it. But I’m realistic."
Planners expect Hooksett, already among the fastest-growing towns in New Hampshire, will continue growing for decades to come. The town’s planning director, Charles Watson, says the potential is there for Hooksett, estimated population 13,270, to swell to 45,000 residents — about the size of Concord.
"Unless the town buys up an awful lot of land, or a lot of people feel generous and give it up, that figure will be reached," Watson said. "It’s just a question of when."
Experts say Hooksett is leading the way as heavy growth sweeps across the whole of southern New Hampshire. In all, another 185,000 people are expected to flood the state’s southeastern corridor over the next two decades, pushing its population over the 1 million mark.
By then, many officials agree, some of the area’s smaller towns may find themselves at the same crossroads at which Hooksett sits today.
"What are we going to look like in 20 years? That’s the question," state Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray said at a recent meeting of local planners.
"Do we want New Hampshire to be New Hampshire, or do we want New Hampshire to be — God forbid — New Jersey?"
Murray and other officials say the southern tier is heading for grave problems unless it starts planning for that possibility. The coming influx, they say, could weigh heavily on local governments, draining their resources and forcing large-scale tax hikes.
At the same time, the developments needed to house those newcomers could chip away at great swaths of open fields and forests, forever altering the region’s identity.
"If we don’t do something different, I think it’s inevitable," said Jeff Taylor, the former state planning director who now runs a consulting firm in Concord.
The region’s growth could also place unprecedented burdens on state and local roadways. Commissioner Murray says the state’s highway construction plans, including the widening of Interstate 93 for $480 million, won’t keep traffic from mounting in the towns. If anything, reports suggest, the I-93 project will bring even more drivers into New Hampshire.
Regional planners, however, say they do have strategies for meeting these challenges. The key, they say, is smarter land-use planning: No more mini-mansions on 4-acre lots. More clustering. Less division between residential and commercial zones.
In other words, one regional planner said, the New Hampshire of tomorrow should look a lot like the New Hampshire of yesterday.
"If you go back and you look at the traditional New England town historically, it’s got a strong town center which is developed at a surprisingly high density," said Steve Williams, executive director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission. "It has businesses, grocery stores, schools and everything else in this very compact little area.
"If we could get back to the traditional New England town, we would actually be in good shape."
The state’s Department of Transportation is promoting this vision with its five-year, $3.5 million Community Technical Assistance Program, launched this month. It’s goal is to educate local planners about effective land-use strategies.
"We’re not telling people what to do," said James Gruber, executive director of the Antioch New England Institute, which is assisting with the program. "We’re trying to have a dialogue and give them a toolbox."
One regional planner, however, called the program a "smoke and mirror show."
"If we see any of that $3.5 million, we’ll all be very lucky people," said David Preece, executive director of the Southern New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission.
Preece said the towns urgently need expert planners to offer technical assistance.
"We don’t have to have DOT tell us there is a problem," he said. "We know there is a problem."
Hooksett residents took the matter into their own hands this spring. The town voted in May for a resident-driven initiative that puts a tight cap on new housing developments. The ordinance is currently being contested in court.
Michael Sorel led the charge to put the ordinance before the town.
"The expression I’ve been saying for years is: "The elephants are coming, the elephants are coming," he said. "And the elephants are here now."