Town of Columbia
Introduction and Vision
Columbia Master Plan Committee
Columbia Planning Board
New Hampshire state law mandates planning boards to “prepare and amend from time to time a master plan to guide the development of the municipality” (RSA 674:1).
RSA 674 has specific guidelines for the planning board in regards to Master Plan design, implementation, and regulation. The State of New Hampshire has recommended that the Master Plan be updated every 5 years to keep it current with changes in the community.
With the many changes in Columbia over the past 10 years it was deemed necessary to create an entire new Master Plan to replace the 1985 edition in current use by the town. Many new items will be added to the plan but the existing policies and regulations are being updated for the benefit of the citizens of Columbia.
WHAT IS A MASTER PLAN?
The master plan may be comprised of a collection of reports, statements, land use and development proposals, with accompanying maps, diagrams, charts and other descriptive matter that show as fully as possible and practical the Planning Board’s recommendations for desirable development of the town. The master plan shall include, at a minimum, the following required sections (RSA 674:2):
a. “A vision section that serves to direct the other sections of the plan. This section shall contain a set of statements which articulate the desires of the citizens affected by the master plan, not only for their locality but for the region and the whole state. It shall contain a set of guiding principles and priorities to implement that vision.”
b. “A land use section upon which all other sections shall be based. This section shall translate the vision statements into physical terms. Based on a study of population, economic activity, and natural and historic, and cultural resources, it shall show existing conditions and the proposed location, extent, and intensity of future land uses.”
The master plan may also include the following sections (RSA 674:2:3):
a. Transportation section;
b. Community facilities section;
c. Economic development section;
d. Natural Resources section;
e. Natural Hazards section;
f. Recreation section;
g. Utility and public service section;
h. Cultural and historic resources section;
i. Regional concern section;
j. Neighborhood plan section
k. Community design section
l. Housing section
m. Implementation section;
The Plan may contain appendices or separate reports that contain the scientific and statistical data that support the various elements of the Plan.
WHAT WILL THE MASTER PLAN ACCOMPLISH?
The master plan provides a framework for the Planning Board in particular and the town as a whole to use in shaping the future over a period of years (5-10 years is recommended for master plan updates (RSA 674:3:2). The Planning Board should be able to refer to the town’s master plan whenever a development proposal comes before it, to determine whether development that is being proposed is consistent with the Master Plan.
For any municipality in the State of New Hampshire to adopt a zoning ordinance, a Planning Board must have adopted, at a minimum, a general statement of goals and objectives and the land use section of the master plan. In Columbia’s case, the town does have a zoning ordinance and the current Master Plan was completed in 1985; in the ensuing 21 years, many changes have occurred in town. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Planning Board to bring the Master Plan up to date with the current conditions.
This Master Plan represents - to the best ability of the Planning Board to determine - the wishes of the residents of Columbia regarding the present and future vision of the town for the next 5-10 years. The Planning Board has conducted a survey and solicited comment in order to reach the concluding recommendations.
PURPOSE OF THE MASTER PLAN
This Plan is to serve as a guide for the community as a whole to use in shaping its future. It is set-up to be a wide interpretation of the community vision so regulation can be implemented without hindering development in the surrounding areas.
From the master plan survey, the opinion of the town’s people indicates that the people would like to maintain the natural characteristics of the town of Columbia. While continued growth is inevitable, positive growth opportunities could bring small business and recreational opportunities to town. To attempt to keep these goals in sight with a minimum of regulations and not to impede the independent nature of the area, we have put forth this vision statement.
B. GOALS AND OBJECTIVES
.Create a positive balance of land use that allows Columbia to grow economically and residentially while maintaining its small New England town characteristics.
. Preserve green space and rural charm in visible areas while providing residential, commercial and industrial space in accessible areas.
. Ensure the development of the town it at a manageable rate that will not overburden taxpayers with sharp increases in taxes due to larger student tuition or increase in municipal services.
. Review the two zoning districts to ensure they do not need further updates or additions to reflect the development in the town.
. Review the Zoning Ordinance on an annual basis to ensure that it reflects goals and objectives of the Master Plan and meets the needs of current local conditions.
. Review subdivision regulations to assess any changes to developments in town that are not being properly addressed in the Subdivision Regulations Manual.
. Promote economic development in Columbia to enhance the community and keep with the quality of life that Columbia’s people have come to expect.
. Bring stabilized small business into the community.
. Improve tax base without impacting (minimal impact to) the school or the town’s infrastructure.
. Continually monitor the Zoning Ordinance to ensure that it reflects the changing nature of home occupations and businesses.
. Continue to maintain and upgrade the existing roads and road maintenance in town.
. Encourage the improvement of the existing town maintained roads.
. Allow for development of rural areas while ensuring new private or public roads will meet the safety standards required by the State of New Hampshire.
. Maintain a priority list for town road improvements.
. Evaluate the possibility of classifying some town roads as Scenic Roads, pursuant to RSA 231:158,II.
. Ensure the availability of a variety of housing types, which meet the needs of the town’s diverse population.
. Encourage development of second homes in rural areas.
. Support the development of elderly housing opportunities privately through incentive programs available through state and federal assistance and programs.
. Promote home ownership by supporting existing state and federal homeowner programs.
. Evaluate minimum lot requirements to further protect and preserve open space.
. Assess the impact of Conservation Easements and Land Use Regulations to help preserve the character of the town.
. Consider ridgeline development restrictions to preserve rural character of the area.
PUBLIC AND COMMUNITY FACILITIES, UTILITIES, AND RECREATION
. Assure the availability and provide affordable and quality recreational opportunities for community residents as well as tourists of all ages.
. Encourage recreational use of the 17 acres along the river purchased by the town in 2005.
. Balance new development with protection and preservation of the town’s natural resources;
. Preserve and protect agricultural lands and environmentally sensitive lands to enhance the open space characteristics of the town.
. Protect critical natural resources areas by preventing development in and on; wetlands; slopes over 25% and floodplain soils.
. Develop and promote use of the 17 acres owned by the town along the Connecticut River.
. Continue to enforce the zoning regulations regarding development in the floodplain zone of town.
HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL RESOURCES
. Preserve the town’s historical, cultural and aesthetic characteristics.
. Identify buildings and or structures to be preserved in the town.
. Establish a plan for the Columbia Town Hall to keep its historic looks and restore the interior of the structure now that the town offices have been moved to a new building.
The town of Columbia is divided in only two zones; Floodplain and Rural. Lot sizes and the number of lots in new subdivisions are limited by the Planning Board. Forestry Usage previously by large logging operations has changed to smaller operations clearing land. The Great North Woods has changed over the last 10 years to a more tourist-related area. Visitors from southern New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are purchasing land locally and building seasonal homes. This has resulted in a land and building boon to the area creating the need of more regulation regarding land subdivision. The few local farms left in town are family run.
Residential areas previously concentrated along major roads have now expanded into the rural areas of North Jordan Hill, Marshall Hill, Bungy, Meridan Hill, and along Route 3. With pricing of land increasing exponentially in southern NH, tourists have found the local area to be a perfect place to build a second home for seasonal use. Previously large tracts of woods are now dotted with new homes for recreational use. The recent past has seen a large increase in subdivision for housing and building permits for new homes. The Planning Board is looking at how these subdivisions will affect the character of the town. Seasonal homes now built can change to permanent residences in the future and increase town expenses regarding school tuition, road maintenance, and public works.
At the present there are few regulations pertaining to the establishment of any type of business in Columbia. Future growth trends show that it is only a matter of time before commercial entities will be looking to expand in the area. With the increasing cost of operating a business in southern NH, many companies are looking at the area for possible expansion to transplanting of their business.
Increased population growth, evolving housing needs, changing social and economic trends discussed throughout this Master Plan have had - and will continue to have - a direct impact on the landscape of our community. Because land is a finite resource which can never be replaced, the Planning Board realized that the proper use of Columbia’s land represents one of the most important challenges it faces - especially as the board confronts fundamental land use issues related to agriculture, where people will live, play, shop and work, and how they will travel around town. Whether considered individually, or as a whole, these issues have the potential to drastically affect the town’s visual beauty, historic sense of place and overall quality of life. Identifying and exploring Columbia’s land use trends may affect future expansion and assist the town in deciding what steps should be taken to meet the perceived land use needs of the community.
. To review Columbia’s historic and existing land use patterns and show future trends to help evaluate regulations that may need to be implemented to ensure proper growth and expansion that will not adversely affect the current tax base.
. Determine the adequacy of the existing municipal infrastructure of roads and, if it is deemed necessary, develop any necessary policies for their expansion in order to accommodate anticipated residential, commercial, agricultural, or municipal development.
Incorporate principles into zoning, subdivision, site plan and other town regulations where it can be practically done.
“Current Use Lands”
Until 1973, New Hampshire cities and towns typically assessed all parcels of land - including undeveloped lands - at their “highest and best value” rather than their “current use value”. Oftentimes, this method of assessment was felt to be an unfair financial burden by towns of large open space land holdings. In response to their situation, and in order to preserve such undeveloped lands, the 1973 State Legislature enacted RSA 79-A:1, which declared that preservation of open space was in the public interest and consequently approved the Current Use tax assessment system which is now widely used across the state.
Essentially, the Current Use tax assessment system allows undeveloped portions of parcels which are 10 acres or larger in size to be assessed at a lower tax rate (the “current use” rate) than all other parcels in town with the stipulation that such “current use” lands remain undeveloped. Any change that disqualifies the land from the Current Use assessment would result in a penalty equal to ten percent of the fair market value of the property. Most observers believe that this legislation has played an important role in preserving open space throughout the state as well as in Columbia. Certainly, the significantly lower tax rates assessed on “current use” lands has made it possible for many landowners to retain ownership of their property as open space.
Current Land Use Trends
204.74 acres of Columbia lands have been taken out of the current use program for development from 1994-2004. The 2006 MS-1 form filed with the NH Department of Revenue stated there were 33,065.778 acres of land in current use and an additional 76.902 acres in conservation restriction assessment. This shows that 84% of the land in Columbia is in current use.
The breakdown of the land removed from current use is as follows:
1994---43.13 acres removed
The numbers may indicate a small amount of acres taken out of current use but this is misleading. By combining the figure with new subdivisions and building permits it shows an increase in smaller 5-20 acre building lots. The Planning Board anticipates that this trend will continue over the next 10 to 20 years. Smaller building lots will replace many of the larger 50 to 100 acre parcels in town.
Other Town Ordinances
There are no specific ordinances relating to land use. Current policy only affects the building of structures no closer than 25 feet from boundary lines and state approved septic design presented to the planning board before approval of a building permit. There are no policies regarding cluster housing, commercial or industrial development. Since the town has no public facilities for water and sewer any building of large commercial structures will require more extensive discussion by the town to avoid an adverse impact on the community.
Land Use Regulations
The Planning Board is looking into developing cluster housing regulations. There are subdivision regulations specifying how land may be subdivided, but they are limited in scope. The following is a brief discussion of these local land use regulations.
Columbia’s subdivision regulations were first adopted by the Planning Board in March 06, 1973. The subdivision regulations grant the planning board the authority to control premature and scattered development and ensure that local development projects will be carried out in a harmonious and safe manner. The rules also ensure that land is adequately suited for the type of development being proposed.
The document classifies subdivision types into minor (four or fewer lots), and major (five or more lots) and includes an assigned set of regulatory requirements for each subdivision type. These standards include provisions for lot requirements, road classification and design, areas of poor drainage, and impact on local roads and town requirements.
Numerous design standards are included which deal with street design, frontage issues, site grading and improvement plans, drainage, curbing and sidewalks. Some of the street design rules manage issues related to street trees, signage, lighting and the naming of streets. Utility design standards are also included to control storm water drainage, water supply and sanitary sewage disposal.
The Subdivision Regulations also contain sections on administrative procedures and other procedural measures. The contents and specifications for what is required to be included on subdivision plats are clearly outlined for applications to follow and similar requirements are provided for construction plans.
As a result of the findings in the various chapters of the Master Plan, the Planning Board may seek to revise and improve the Subdivision Regulations to better suit current conditions and the justified needs of the Planning Board (acting on the town’s behalf) and the subdivision applicant. In particular, the Board may investigate possible changes to the existing provisions for cluster or commercial developments.
Site Plan Review Regulations
Site plans are required to be submitted for all commercial, industrial, multi-family (3 or more units) and business developments or expansions. The Planning Board has defined two different types of site plans: major site plans - which are required for all new developments, any substantial change or expansion of the use of an existing site- and minor site plans (which involve all site plans which are not defined as major). The Site Plan Review Regulations includes a definitions sections, checklists governing plan submissions, a set of rules governing how the Board deals with development of regional impact, as well as a range of other application procedures for the design review. A number of recommendations for changes or additions to the Site Plan Regulations are likely to be made as a result of findings included in this new Master Plan.
Areas to consider regarding land use
Wetland Hydric soils are calculated by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and are wetland soils that are rated as poorly or very poorly draining; as a consequence, they are considered to be not suitable for development. Septic designs for homes take in consideration the soil type and by NH regulations can be modified to ensure the septic leach field meets requirements. Many new subdivisions in the area have very wet locations but no local ordinances are in place to regulate the development of wet areas unless the area is specifically designated “wetlands” by the State of N.H.
Floodplains are low-lying areas along open bodies of water such as rivers and streams which are periodically flooded by rising water. Mapped by the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers, Columbia’s floodplains are primarily located near the banks of the Connecticut River along Route 3. For purposes of emergency management and preparedness, as well as to serve the needs of the insurance industry, both the 100-year and the 500- year floodplain limits were calculated to measure as accurately as possible the broadest likely extent of the largest flood which could be expected to occur within a 100-year or 500-year time period.
Lands which are currently being excavated are also limiting to development. Columbia has a number of such parcels, which are primarily located along the Connecticut River where there are significant sand and gravel deposits. Land reclamation efforts are expected to occur in these areas as the materials are in the gravel pits are used up.
The last type of development constraint to be examined is land owned by a public entity or agency. The Town of Columbia has recently purchased such land along the Connecticut River where the town has built a new town office building near Route 3 and leaving the 17 acres along the riverfront for conservation purposes. The Conservation Fund of over $40,000. has provided additional funding for the purchase of this 70-acre parcel. The town will now have a natural area along the Connecticut River for recreational use. This is something the town has been seeking since the only land town owned was the ¼ acre parcel where the Town Hall now sits.
Development Constraints Conclusions
Despite all the natural and other barriers to future development discussed in this section which has the effect of eliminating or limiting land development in Columbia, there are still many large sized parcels in the Bungy and Jordan Hill areas of town which have the potential for substantial development. If carried out, such projects would likely impose a significant impact on the town’s expenditures for school tuition, road maintenance, and public service. Due to this, the Planning Board has looked at future subdivisions as the most significant issue facing the towns development.