US Labeling

I briefly described the European Labeling scheme last year, and recently received an update from Slow Food USA Learn the Labels that does a good job describing some of the more important US labels.

Although State and Federal elected officials are still genuflecting for Big AG Lobbyists, I find it humorous that the business channels are all agog over the decline in McDonald, the need for Burger King to merge with Tim Horton, Kellogg buyout of Annies, and the overall slide in fast food. Except of course, for Chipotle, Panera, and other GMO free, organic leaning chains. People are speaking with their wallets with millennials leading the way.  All the while with an election coming, our darling candidates are still stuffing their campaign coffers with Big Ag largess.

The millennials have it right, when you can’t trust government to believe that you are smart enough to understand the truth and Big AG pours money into lobbying then simply turn your back on them until the truth wins out and a rational decision can be made. I must be getting old, I remember when government was for the people. I remember when Nixon started the EPA. I remember too many corporate failures at protecting the people and our environment to believe that my best interests will ever be placed ahead of profits. Will the highly productive corn, soy and wheat fields of Iowa become the next Superfund site?

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Durham’s Budget Challenge

Some have suggested that I was impertinent to challenge the Durham Town Council to a dose of fiscal responsibility, as if a lowly taxpayer has no place at court, and even less right to question their betters. Let me clarify my challenge:

“I challenge the Town Council to set the 2015 Town Tax Revenues (Budget) at no more than $6,300,000 to claw back those excesses*, thereby putting Town’s management on an equal footing with the ORCSD, and for subsequent periods to limit budget growth to no more than the annual increase in Social Security benefits.”
* From the previous post, “excesses” are defined as the actual Town’s growth in tax revenues (budget) over Oyster River Cooperative School (ORCSD) district’s 1.30% annual growth rate from 2010 to 2014.

First of all, I commend the Oyster River Cooperative School District’s Board on holding their annual increase to 1.30% over the last four years, but I am fully aware that starting from a high base, a small percentage increase represents a large sum of money. I don’t believe that a few years of negative growth would degrade the quality of education and would once again serve as proof of the law of diminishing returns. The arrangement with Barrington promises to reduce the ultimate cost to member communities (Durham, Lee & Madbury) and many will be watching carefully to see how this plays out. I believe that the underlying member community costs will continue to increase absent managerial cost control.

Second, I am not draconian. I understand the money pit construct, and how throwing good money after bad is more about face-saving than resurrecting the dead. However, the challenge to “claw back those excesses” was to achieve a 1.30% 5 year growth rate, 2010-2015, and not about the excess spending during 2011-2014.

Adjust Growth Rate to 1.30%

 
Town's Tax Collection
Actual Increase over Prior Year
Tax Rate Increase Over Prior Year
2010$5,835,656
2011$6,352,036$516,3808.85%
2012$6,799,163$447,1287.04%
2013$6,949,352$150,1882.21%
2014$7,556,069$606,7178.73%
Growth Rate 2010-20146.67%
Total$1,720,413
2015 - Challenge$6,224,965-$1,331,104-17.62%
Growth 2010-20151.30%

Had I challenged the Town Council to claw back the excess spending from 2011-2014, essentially matching the ORCSD budget growth rate, then I would have challenged them to reduce the 2015 budget by over $3,545,435, see Table below, instead of $1,331,104, see Table above, that is necessary to achieve the average 1.30% growth rate.

Excess Spending over ORCSD Growth Rate 2010 - 2014

 
Town's Actual Tax Collection
Tax Rate Increased Annually by 1.30%
Excess Spending Over 1.30% Target
2010$5,835,656
2011$6,352,036 $5,911,519 $440,516
2012$6,799,163 $5,988,369 $810,794
2013$6,949,352 $6,066,218 $883,134
2014$7,556,069 $6,145,079 $1,410,990
2015 Challenge$6,224,965 $0
Total$3,545,435

A companion challenge would be to ask Durham’s Town Council to explain what they were thinking when they approved $3,545,435 in spending over a 1.30% growth rate in a time of low to no inflation, in a time when many were without jobs, in a time when many were cutting back to pay their property taxes. This is all before the Town office moves into their new $3,000,000 monument.

Is anyone actually minding the store?

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Analyzing Property Tax Rates

Conventional wisdom has the Oyster River Cooperative School District (ORCSD) as the bane of every Durham taxpayer. They refused to cede budget authority to the Town Council and continue operating as a semi-autonomous taxing authority. Hoots and hollers in a meeting hall packed with teachers, parents and students who steadfastly refuse to take any cost containment steps meet thoughtful taxpayer promoted warrant articles. In an act of solidarity, the ORCSD School Board refused to respond to a taxpayer questioning their training and experience in management operations, accounting and finance. The table below compares the effective per student tuition costs for various local communities:

Comparison of Education Costs

 
School Tax Rate
State Tax Rate
Town Valuation
Students (ADM)
Tuition
Durham16.762.45$906,003,460 919.71$18,924
Rollinsford17.672.75$221,987,197 283.6$15,984
Portsmouth5.562.49$4,096,603,575 2095.95$15,734
Kensington16.52.43$297,326,778 379.15$14,845
Stratham12.892.22$1,223,166,918 1283.61$14,398
Greenland9.062.51$653,828,900 528.87$14,304
Newfields16.172.64$239,922,299 318.25$14,180
East Kingston15.962.45$298,935,807 391.47$14,058
Newmarket15.022.35$744,537,983 932.44$13,870
Epping16.662.26$651,392,800 934.33$13,191
Exeter14.682.44$1,606,450,382 2105.47$13,062
Madbury17.012.42$236,728,935 354.02$12,993
Lee18.032.32$414,570,781 678.14$12,441
Brentwood16.772.33$507,147,059 830.37$11,665
Barrington13.042.22$915,099,903 1283.76$10,878
Dover10.542.51$2,649,300,450 3508.71$ 9,854
Somersworth15.392.32$845,720,630 1603.76$ 9,339
Rochester12.192.46$2,021,637,412 4038.05$ 7,334
Calculate tuition costs by adding the School and State Tax rates together and converting them to their decimal equivalents then multiply that sum by the Town’s Taxable Valuation and divide the result by Students. (((School Tax + State Tax)/1000)*Taxable Valuation)/Students

Tax rates are not set, they are calculated. The Town, County, State or School District determine their budgets and those budgets are then divided by the Town’s taxable property valuation to determine the tax rate. As a taxpayer, your property taxes may decline because the Town becomes fiscally responsible, or the overall taxable valuation increased (usually through growth, but sometimes through reevaluation), or more likely a combination of the two. Unfortunately, the normal occurrence is for a Town’s tax component to increase along with the taxable valuation, which generates a larger increase in overall Town expenditures. Growth covers some, if not all, sins.

Many Durham residents believe the solution to our tax problems lies in growth. We are rapidly transforming the Town into commercial student housing complexes and should soon reap increased Town valuation. But the real solution is not growth, rather fiscal prudence. If we add $5,000,000 to the current Town valuation and maintain the existing Town Tax component then the Town receives an additional $41,700 ($5,000,000 * (8.34/1000)) with no additional costs. Prudent action would reduce the Town Tax component to 8.29 ((($7,556,069/($906,003,460+$5,000,000))*1000). But that is a minor savings; if we are to be competitive with Exeter, for example, then we need to reduce our Town Tax component by .53 (8.34-7.81). To accomplish this we would need to reduce our 2014 Budget by either $480,181 ((.53/1000)*$906,003,460) or increase our Town Valuation by $61,482,967 ($7,556,069/(7.81/1000)) or some combination of these actions.  Given our total property tax rate, it is extremely remote that we will achieve that level of growth in Town Valuation.

Frequently we hear about the Town’s Kaisan training sessions and meetings. However, we have not heard what or who they are benchmarking, nor have we seen any tangible, meaningful goals being set. Quality initiatives are rarely, if ever, successful without the most senior officials’ (Town Council) endorsement and active involvement.

Quality management programs preach the mantra You can’t manage what you don’t measure. They also teach that organizations need to identify superior competitors to benchmark their operations against as a way of gauging their efforts to improve processes, customer service and control expenses. Benchmarking is one attribute of goal setting. Durham plans to spend $1,720,413 or 29.5% more in 2014 than in 2010, well above the compounded inflation rate! Other than the Community Center (a.k.a. Library) what service expansions have occurred? Durham has just entered the early phases of budget preparation and the table below is more than appropriate as the Town Council’s benchmark to spur the Town on a path toward taxpayer relief.  Other communities are doing a better job. The Town Council needs to focus on budget reductions and not the tax rate.

Local Tax Rate Components

 
Town
County
School
State
Total
Durham8.342.8616.762.4530.41
Rollinsford3.502.9617.672.7526.88
Portsmouth8.721.145.562.4917.91
Kensington4.531.0916.502.4324.55
Stratham3.461.0812.892.2219.65
Greenland2.801.139.062.5115.50
Newfields4.291.1816.172.6424.28
East Kingston5.291.0615.962.4524.76
Newmarket6.071.0215.022.3524.46
Epping4.341.0116.662.2624.27
Exeter7.811.1014.682.4426.03
Madbury3.242.5717.012.4225.24
Lee5.532.8718.032.3228.75
Brentwood3.731.0516.772.3323.88
Barrington4.662.5413.042.2222.46
Dover9.992.9310.542.5125.97
Somersworth10.072.6915.392.3230.47
Rochester8.852.8612.192.4626.36

Glaringly obvious from the first table, is how far Durham’s cost of education has outstripped the other local communities. The ORCSD desperately needs to align their cost structure with other communities in the area. However, the table below paints a slightly different picture; ORCSD has, at least, tried to contain their cost increases over the last four years and it appears that Durham’s Town Operations (followed closely by the County) is the real cause of our rising tax burden.

Summary of Durham Property Taxes 2010 through 2014

 
Town Valuation
Town's Tax
Town
County
School
State
Total
2014$906,003,460$7,556,0698.342.8616.762.4530.41
2013$913,186,825$6,949,3527.612.7216.072.3528.75
2012$898,172,169$6,799,1637.572.6115.692.3328.20
2011$892,139,835$6,352,0367.122.5415.432.1927.28
2010$895,039,219$5,835,6566.522.3016.112.0727.00
Growth Rate0.30%6.67%6.35%5.60%0.99%4.30%3.02%
Calculate Durham’s Town’s Tax by converting the Town Tax Rate to its decimal equivalent and multiplying that by the Town’s Valuation. ((Town’s Tax/1000)*Town Valuation)

Had the Durham Town Council constrained itself to the much maligned ORCSD’s level of growth between 2010 and 2014, namely 1.30% (the combined effect of School Tax Component increase and Town Valuation increase over the 4 years), then the 2014 tax demanded from Durham taxpayers, necessary to support the 2014 Town Budget, would have been $1,400,000 less. I challenge the Town Council to set the 2015 Town Tax Revenues (Budget) at no more than $6,300,000 to claw back those excesses, thereby putting Town’s management on an equal footing with the ORCSD, and for subsequent periods to limit budget growth to no more than the annual increase in Social Security benefits.

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Looking for a House?

Have you have outgrown your current residence? Do have a generous down payment available and good credit? You got there by watching your expenses and following reasonable budgets. You work hard. You don’t waste your money. You have $9,000 allocated for property taxes, how much property can you buy and stay within your budget? Or have you have been pre-approved for a $500,000 mortgage and decided to build your dream home?

Where do you begin looking for that new home or building site?

 
Property Valuation for $9,000 in Taxes
Tax Rate
Property Taxes on $500,000 Home
Additional Investment @ 5% Required to Pay Variance with Durham Taxes
Somersworth$295,37230.47$15,235-$600
Durham$295,95530.41$15,205$0
Lee$313,04328.75$14,375$16,600
Rollinsford$334,82126.88$13,440$35,300
Rochester$341,42626.36$13,180$40,500
Exeter$345,75526.03$13,015$43,800
Dover$346,55425.97$12,985$44,400
Madbury$356,57725.24$12,620$51,700
East Kingston$363,48924.76$12,380$56,500
Kensington$366,59924.55$12,275$58,600
Newmarket$367,94824.46$12,230$59,500
Newfields$370,67524.28$12,140$61,300
Epping$370,82824.27$12,135$61,400
Brentwood$376,88423.88$11,940$65,300
Barrington$400,71222.46$11,230$79,500
Stratham$458,01519.65$9,825$107,600
Portsmouth$502,51317.91$8,955$125,000
Greenland$580,64515.50$7,750$149,100

If your $9,000 budget for property taxes is firm then only look in Portsmouth or Greenland to build your dream home. If you have more flexibility in your budget then the fifth column above (Additional Investment) is the investment at 5% required to fund the variance between Durham’s property taxes and the other communities. For example, Durham’s property taxes are $2,585 higher on a $500,000 property than Madbury’s. In order to pay that $2,585 each year, you would need to have $51,700 invested at 5%. Conversely, you could say that by building your home in Greenland you saved $149,100 more than if you built in Durham.

Actually the numbers above are very conservative. When was the last time a Town held their tax rate consistent year after year? If both Towns increase their tax rates by 2% then the variance along with the required Additional Investment will increase by 2%. Unless drunken sailors take control of Madbury or Durham’s Town Council comes down with Fiscal Constraint Syndrome (FCS is apparently not contagious), the variance in local property taxes will not change and most likely increase.

Do you want to invest in real estate or pay property taxes? Where will you begin your search?

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Tomato Hornworm

When it comes to gardening, not every predator is evil and those flying little stingers might just be your BFF. Tomato Hornworms can do substantial damage, if not detected (like the 2 3/4 inch one below) and removed early,  left unchecked they can ravage your tomato plants.

The Braconid Wasp can save a gardener from extensive losses. They are a natural predator of the hornworm, attaching themselves to the hornworm and laying their eggs inside. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae feast on the muscle tissue but not the vital organs thereby keeping the hornworm alive but immobilized. Essentially a living buffet, not pleasant for the hornworm but part of a grander cycle of life. After a week or so, the larvae mature and exit through the skin, building a silk like cocoon and ultimately emerging as an adult braconid wasp. There are numerous braconid wasp species that parasitize other harmful insects such as aphids.

 

Tomato Hornworm with Braconid Wasp Cocoons 19 Aug 2014 Durham, NH                                                                        © T20R11.com

Tomato Hornworm with Braconid Wasp Cocoons
19 Aug 2014 Durham, NH © T20R11.com

If you discover a tomato hornworm covered with silk like cocoons, there is no potential damage to your tomato plants and you should leave it alone so the braconid wasps can emerge and go forth fighting the good fight.

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Nasturtiums

Nasturtiums August 2014 Durham, NH

Nasturtiums
August 2014 Durham, NH

I have been planting nasturtiums for quite a few years. They grow with little to no attention, look fine and flower early through the killing frost in the fall. Two years ago I increased the plantings to attract and support the varied pollinators that struggle to survive in our area.

Nasturtiums October 2013 Durham, NH

Nasturtiums
October 2013 Durham, NH

Nasturtium seeds are fairly expensive but early on I learned they have one of the easiest seeds to harvest and save for the next year; simply dry them on a dinner plate and store in an envelope until you are ready to plant. You will harvest more seed than you plant. Nasturtiums are easy to plant, require no maintenance and support our agricultural pollinators. Harvest the seeds and pass some on, it isn’t east being a pollinator and they can always use a flower or two.

Nasturtium Seeds August 2014 Durham, NH

Nasturtium Seeds
August 2014 Durham, NH

Nasturtiums attract various pollinators and they much appreciated in the garden.

Spicebush Swallowtail July 2014 Durham, NH

Spicebush Swallowtail
July 2014 Durham, NH

Honeybee August 2014 Durham, NH

Honeybee
August 2014 Durham, NH

Bumblebee August 2014 Durham, NH

Bumblebee
August 2014 Durham, NH

Hummingbird July 2014 Durham, NH

Hummingbird
July 2014 Durham, NH

 

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Future of New Hampshire’s Food System

Help Shape the Future of New Hampshire’s Food System!

If you spend your professional or civic life focused on food or the food system, join this conversation. Attend a New Hampshire Regional Gathering where you will

•have the opportunity to shape a state-wide Food Strategy to better our food system
•learn about trends, data, challenges, and innovations related to food in NH
•network with others across sectors
•and identify some actions for reaching our food system goals

All are welcome!

The Future of Food in New Hampshire depends on YOU!

August 18th 6:30pm-9:00pm
Seacoast, NH

August 27th 9:00am-12:00pm
New London, NH

September 16th 9:00am-12:00pm
Laconia, NH

September 17th 9:00am-12:00pm
Manchester, NH

September 24th 8:00am-11:00am
Freedom, NH

September 30th 5pm-7:45pm
Keene, NH
*via Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition Policy Forum

October 1st, 6:00pm-9:00pm
Berlin, NH

October 2nd, 7:45am-10:45am
Haverhill, NH

October 6th 6:00pm-9:00pm
Colebrook, NH

October 7th 9:00am-12:00pm
Littleton, NH

*Food and beverages will be provided. Additional details for regional gatherings can be found at www.nhfoodstrategy.weebly.com

To learn more about the NH Food Strategy development process, share ideas and to connect with others across food system sectors –

Visit www.nhfoodstrategy.weebly.com or E-mail nhfoodstrategy@gmail.com

 The NH Food Strategy effort is coordinated by the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute in collaboration with a diverse group of stakeholders from around the Granite State.

Sustainability Institute at UNH
107 Nesmith Hall | 131 Main Street
Durham, NH 03824 USA
603.862.4088 phone | 603.862.0785 fax
www.sustainableunh.unh.edu | www.sustainableunh.org
 
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Blackberry Pest

I showed our friend Grace how to make blackberry jelly yesterday. She scoured the canes and managed to collect a large bucket of berries, which yielded over 850 grams of blackberry juice after seeding, enough for 2 pints of jelly. She is a bright eager learner and nice to have around. I didn’t realize just how lucky it was that we made jelly yesterday.

As I began roasting coffee this morning, I looked out the side porch window:

Blackberry Pest 7 Aug 2014 Durham, NH

Blackberry Pest
7 Aug 2014 Durham, NH

There, sitting comfortably under my remote rain gauge, munching on a fat, juicy blackberry was the reformed tomato pest.

It is so on.

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Zoning Variances

Live Free or Die! Okay, maybe not so free. Over the years we have enacted numerous ordinances attempting to socially engineer our neighborhoods and keep out the riffraff. One of Durham, NH’s ordinances is a prohibition on drive-thru windows/service for all non-financial businesses. At the time enacted, this college community didn’t want to have their main thoroughfare littered with McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Dunkin Donuts, etc. You might not like it, but the people spoke. If you still don’t like it, then petition the Planning Board for a change in the specific ordinance language. However, normally people address those concerns to the Zoning Board of Adjustment who holds court over all variance requests.

As noted in my prior post, the purchase and sale agreement for the ‘old’ Town Hall will be reduced by $200,000 if a drive-thru pharmacy window variance is not granted. There are 5 reasons (a recap of the New Hampshire law is at the bottom of this post) that a variance may be granted:

1) Variance is not contrary to public interest

The prohibition on non-financial drive-thru windows is a long-standing ordinance and given the lack of requests to the Planning Board to amend the ordinance it seems that the variance should be denied on this point.

2) The spirit of the ordinance is observed

I suppose if the buyer agreed to put in a bank of ATM machines then someone with a straight face could posit that it really is a financial institution that just happens to sell drugs. Personally $200,000 wouldn’t stop me from laughing uncontrollably.

3) Substantial justice is done

None of the coffee shops in Town have a drive-thru nor do the sandwich or donut stores, the only pharmacy in Town doesn’t have a drive-thru and the closest competitor in Dover doesn’t have one either. It is hard to find an injustice when everyone is forced to follow the same rules; it also seems that granting a variance would create an injustice for the other convenience stores in Town.

I’ll let the lawyers argue this out, but it does seem to me that an injustice must exist before ‘substantial justice’ can be granted. Given the prohibition on non-financial drive-thru windows is a long-standing ordinance and that the buyer, as evidenced by the purchase and sale agreement, knew full well of the ordinance’s restriction, determining an injustice exists seems a stretch.

4) The values of surrounding properties are not diminished

Rumor on the street is Route 108, from Court House corner to Beard’s Creek, will be rezoned becoming the “new” downtown core commercial district supplanting the Historic District along the way. In the here and now, that hasn’t happened. I can’t see how a pharmacy drive-thru window would enhance the surrounding properties’ value, at best it would be neutral, and given that projects rarely work out to the best, it seems highly unlikely the variance could survive solely on this condition alone.

5) Literal enforcement of the provisions of the ordinance would result in an unnecessary hardship

Given this is a long-standing ordinance and that the buyer, as evidenced by the purchase and sale agreement, knew full well of the ordinance’s restriction, and will save $200,000 if the variance fails, I don’t see how this condition could apply. The only party that could claim financial distress might be the Town of Durham, who I believe also knew of the zoning restriction, the fact the property is in the Historic District, and should have known that the variance request had no material basis to succeed.

One thing that has me puzzled is why the Town’s attorney didn’t review the purchase and sale agreement and come to the same conclusions that I have over the likelihood of a successful variance request? If the attorney did actually do this, then why was the headline number $1,300,000; $200,000 more than reasonably believed would be collected? The timing of the Town purchasing the bank building, starting renovations, the ‘old’ Town Office buyer just recently starting discussion with the Historic District Commission, and who knows when a variance may or may not be filed is all puzzling. Who was party to the details and involved in making the decisions?

Did anyone consider taking the over $2,100,000 spent on renovating the bank building and using that instead to make a nice historic style remodel/addition to the ‘old’ Town Offices? I agree that it is very easy to second guess, especially when not all of the facts are in evidence. I have been wrong before, there is some precedence. However, in the spirit of open government, it sure would be nice to know who was involved in the decision-making, what they knew and when they knew it. What alternatives were considered? Did this follow the Kaisan principles and procedures that the Town staff has been thoroughly trained on? Should the public demand an independent management audit? So many questions, so little data.

New Hampshire has specific laws regulating the powers of a Zoning Board of Adjustment: Title LXIV Planning and Zoning, Chapter 674:33 Zoning Board of Adjustment and Building Code Board of Appeals:

674:33 Powers of Zoning Board of Adjustment.
I. The zoning board of adjustment shall have the power to:
(a) Hear and decide appeals if it is alleged there is error in any order, requirement, decision, or determination made by an administrative official in the enforcement of any zoning ordinance adopted pursuant to RSA 674:16; and
(b) Authorize, upon appeal in specific cases, a variance from the terms of the zoning ordinance if:
(1) The variance will not be contrary to the public interest;
(2) The spirit of the ordinance is observed;
(3) Substantial justice is done;
(4) The values of surrounding properties are not diminished; and
(5) Literal enforcement of the provisions of the ordinance would result in an unnecessary hardship.
(A) For purposes of this subparagraph, “unnecessary hardship” means that, owing to special conditions of the property that distinguish it from other properties in the area:
(i) No fair and substantial relationship exists between the general public purposes of the ordinance provision and the specific application of that provision to the property; and
(ii) The proposed use is a reasonable one.
(B) If the criteria in subparagraph (A) are not established, an unnecessary hardship will be deemed to exist if, and only if, owing to special conditions of the property that distinguish it from other properties in the area, the property cannot be reasonably used in strict conformance with the ordinance, and a variance is therefore necessary to enable a reasonable use of it. The definition of “unnecessary hardship” set forth in subparagraph (5) shall apply whether the provision of the ordinance from which a variance is sought is a restriction on use, a dimensional or other limitation on a permitted use, or any other requirement of the ordinance.
II. In exercising its powers under paragraph I, the zoning board of adjustment may reverse or affirm, wholly or in part, or may modify the order, requirement, decision, or determination appealed from and may make such order or decision as ought to be made and, to that end, shall have all the powers of the administrative official from whom the appeal is taken.
III. The concurring vote of 3 members of the board shall be necessary to reverse any action of the administrative official or to decide in favor of the applicant on any matter on which it is required to pass.
IV. A local zoning ordinance may provide that the zoning board of adjustment, in appropriate cases and subject to appropriate conditions and safeguards, make special exceptions to the terms of the ordinance. All special exceptions shall be made in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the zoning ordinance and shall be in accordance with the general or specific rules contained in the ordinance.
V. Notwithstanding subparagraph I(b), any zoning board of adjustment may grant a variance from the terms of a zoning ordinance without finding a hardship arising from the condition of a premises subject to the ordinance, when reasonable accommodations are necessary to allow a person or persons with a recognized physical disability to reside in or regularly use the premises, provided that:
(a) Any variance granted under this paragraph shall be in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the zoning ordinance.
(b) In granting any variance pursuant to this paragraph, the zoning board of adjustment may provide, in a finding included in the variance, that the variance shall survive only so long as the particular person has a continuing need to use the premises.
Source. 1983, 447:1. 1985, 103:20. 1987, 256:1. 1998, 218:1, eff. Aug. 17, 1998. 2009, 307:6, eff. Jan. 1, 2010.
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What do you want to be?

Now that we know what you are, we only need to settle on price, an old joke’s punch line. You might say that Durham is that old joke but I never would.

Durham is in the final construction phase of their new Town Offices and should move in soon. I admit to being a normal taxpayer, rarely reading to the umpteenth page where many bury the headline. I would have sworn that Durham cut a deal to buy the old bank building across the street and sell the current Town Office for what was approximately a wash economically to the Town. To my great surprise, we needed to gut the old bank building, expand it considerably and then redo what seems to be everything except the external brick; 2.9 times the purchase price. I now surmise we will need to repave the parking lot. The rumor on the street is our new Town Office is referred to as Todd’s Mahal.

Over the last few weeks we have also been informed that, not only, has the current Town Office not been sold but that the anticipated price is in flux. The potential buyer wants to destroy the building and redevelop the site for a drug store. According to the Town website:

“Actual purchase and sale price is $1,300,000 contingent upon the approvals for a pharmacy at the 15 Newmarket Road location. If the approvals are not granted, the sale price will be less and the remaining revenue needed will likely be in the form of another municipal bond.”
“On Thursday evening, July 10, 2014, Scott Mitchell, the prospective purchaser of the old Town Office site, will be appearing before the Historic District Commission (HDC) to begin the process of discussing the redevelopment of the 15 Newmarket Road property as a pharmacy use.
Mr. Mitchell will ultimately need the approval of the HDC for both the demolition of the old Town Office site and the approval for the design of any redevelopment there.
Mitchell will also need relief from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to allow a pharmacy drive through (the Durham Zoning Ordinance only allows financial institutions to be permitted by right to have a drive through use) and possible other items. These days, pharmacies insist on the inclusion of a drive through.
Finally, Mitchell will need approval from the Planning Board for the overall plan.”

Durham has a long-standing Ordinance that prohibits drive-thru windows for any business other than banks. That ordinance made sense to the residents when enacted and given the current euphoria over Durham transitioning to a ‘walking community’, it may even make more sense now.

Why wasn’t the purchase and sale agreement (specifically the price) resolved before finalizing the bank building purchase? Why did the prospective buyer delay filing for permits until the reconstruction of the bank building was almost complete? Is it really as simple as offering $200,000 for the Zoning Board of Adjustment to acquiesce and grant a variance?

If the going rate for a variance is $200,000, then I bet we could have done better on the base price negotiating with McDonald’s or Burger King. I’ve driven past the Freeport, Maine McDonald’s on numerous occasions and can attest to their willingness to satisfy local zoning architectural style guides. If we had one of those charettes the Town is so fond of, I bet residents would have clearly favored a McDonald’s over a drug store, more so if we had conducted a professional public opinion poll.

We now find ourselves out-of-pocket $2,906,160 and our principles are on trial. Where was the Town Council while this was going on? Ignoring everything else, does the Town Council really think the taxpayers want a $2,906,160 Town Office complex?

I am also intrigued with the lack of commentary surrounding the annual operating costs of the ‘old’ versus the ‘new’ Town Office. Was that ever factored into the discussion? I get the impression that the Town likes to talk about 1st cost but never wants to discuss life cycle costs and the implications those bring to a present value analysis of any project and the lifetime burden placed on taxpayers.

It should also be pointed out that various other budgeted Town projects have been cancelled, including road work, to accommodate the new Town Office. These projects may or may not get into the next year’s budget. It does become problematic when budgeted projects get deferred or cancelled in favor of pet projects. It makes you question the whole budget process and whether or not the projects are truly necessary or if the Town is simply securing the funds they knew could be raised via property taxes; essentially making budgeted projects no more than placeholders for seconded funds.

Terrible way to run a railroad.

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