New Portsmouth City Council Votes to Limit Its Own Power

In its first real act after inauguration, Portsmouth’s new City Council Monday night took the extraordinary step of limiting its own power. The Council adopted a new policy that would force it to submit proposed ordinances to the legal department and untold boards and commissions and wait for reports before even passing first reading.

New Mayor Bob Lister proposed the new policy, insisting that it will address Portsmouth residents’ worries about transparency, a major issue in the recent City Council campaign. But several residents warned that the move will bog down the Council at a time of city crisis and yield way too much power to the city’s unelected bureaucracy.

Critics are asking why this massive North End complex, with as much floor space as eight football fields, is being rushed through before the new City Council is sworn in

Residents worried about the city’s character object that this massive North End complex has evolved with city help but out of public view and the purview of the city’s elected officials

The public’s biggest transparency concern is about the lack of transparency in city government and land use boards, and that’s where voters want the new Council they just elected to focus its attention, this blogger told the Council before the vote.

“Right now, we have an approval process that lets applicants for big projects go to all the boards at the same time, instead of the orderly process we used to have. We voters who elected you don’t want you to tilt the balance of power even further towards the city’s unelected and opaque bureaucracy and boards. We elected you—not them, and we want you to lead!

In a convoluted argument, former Mayor Eric Spear argued that the new policy would actually foster transparency. Instead of a measure “drafted by a secret group of councilors,” Spear said, referring to another proposal by Esther Kennedy drafted with the help of Councilor Morgan and concerned citizens to protect vulnerable neighborhoods, the public should place its trust in the city planning staff (“experts in the field paid by the taxpayers”) the Planning Board, and the Portsmouth Herald, which “reports on it every step of the way.”

However, Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine referred to the new policy as “babysitting.” “We are babysitting ourselves. This policy handcuffs five (City Councilors) and says we need six to do something we might pass. I’m a great supporter of transparency, but under this policy, you could hide the discussion in staff or boards and commissions. So I don’t think the transparency argument holds water.”

The new policy passed 5-4, and will go into effect Feb 3. Voting for the new policy were Mayor Bob Lister, former Mayor Eric Spear, and City Councilors Chris Dwyer, Brad Lown and Stefany Shaheen. Voting against: Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine and City Councilors Esther Kennedy, Jack Thorsen and Zelita Morgan.


Amid widespread public angst about the size and scale of development, City Councilor Esther Kennedy had proposed a measure to protect some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods– along the Piscataqua River, west of Maplewood, and near Islington and Bridge Streets– by tightening height and density limits and getting rid of conditional use permits there. The Council shot that down 5-4, with Lister casting the swing vote against it.

Smaller houses near 275 Islington, including (on right) the one they want to tear down to make way for the huge project

Residents in the Islington Creek Neighborhood worry that massive new development near these small houses could affect their neighborhood’s intimate human scale

The largest North End megadevelopment proposal yet, the project has provoked widespread public consternation about its scale, mass and boxy style. The project has also raised questions about transparency because it has apparently been evolving for some time with the help of the city bureaucracy– but outside of the public eye and the purview of the city’s elected officials.

During debate, several Councilors including Brad Lown claimed Kennedy’s motion was really aimed at the Harborcorp project. Lown argued that Kennedy’s effort to protect at-risk neighborhoods actually targeted Harborcorp. “This smacks of unfairness,” Lown objected.

Councilor Chris Dwyer objected that Kennedy’s proposal might interfere with form-based zoning, a worry echoed by Councilor Shaheen.

Shaheen also said that creating a new protected zone in the Islington Creek neighborhood might have “unintended consequences” on real estate values, and hinder “the ability of homeowners to sell their homes.” The measure was being railroaded through in haste, Shaheen argued, and people “blindsided.”

However, Councilor Kennedy countered that vulnerable Portsmouth neighborhoods urgently need extra protection right now. When the design review process went into effect awhile back, (grandfathering projects under current lax zoning even if tighter rules get passed), it happened without City Council oversight, Kennedy objected. “Design Review happened without City Council input,” Kennedy argued. “We got blindsided. I really want to slow things down… I am worried about the next big project—and the next and the next and the next.”


Another measure proposed by new Councilor Zelita Morgan would have required conference centers to provide off-street parking. A few years ago, the city inexplicably relaxed many of its parking requirements, and the city currently does not require conference centers to provide any parking.

During debate, Councilor Zelita Morgan argued that the city should tighten its parking requirements so city taxpayers don’t get forced to foot the bill.

Although some documents show that the proposed Harborcorp conference center could bring in as many as 1,200 attendees, the city does not require the developer to provide any parking for conference centers, Morgan said. “Where are we going with this? Is this wise? It should be the developer’s responsibility to provide enough parking.”

The project, which alarms many residents, would have a parking garage on Maplewood Ave at a gateway to the city

Critics object that the conference center will not provide enough parking

But former Mayor Eric Spear said he opposes public parking, which he considers bad for the environment and city tax revenues. What’s really causing problems in cities is an overabundance of parking, he argued. “I’m not making this up,” he repeated several times.

Parking requirements run counter to sustainability, Spear argued. “Why would we want to regress?” In Portsmouth, taxpayers are “making out like a bandit” because people pay for parking, he added.

All of which provoked Councilor Jack Thorsen’s wry remark that he too worries the development will provide inadequate parking. “I’m surprised to listen to Councilor Spear speak against parking because he always wanted more parking.”

The City Council defeated the measure to make developers of conference centers provide off-street parking 5-4, with Lister once again the swing vote against it.


Meanwhile, the Council agreed to send several suggestions by the Mayor to the Planning Board for input. These include getting rid of the conditional use permit by which the HDC can allow buildings to go above 45 feet to 50 and 60 feet in different parts of downtown, getting rid of the “design review” process which grandfathers enormous projects under lax zoning even if tighter rules get passed, and starting a citywide review process to protect fragile neighborhoods outside of the Historic District.

Some critics say new development does not fit in with historic buildings on the Hill

Critics worry that new development clashes with the city’s historic character

Earlier, HDC Chairman Joseph Almeida spoke against height limits, arguing that beautiful buildings like the North Church and the Rockingham are quite tall. Almeida, who was among the HDC majority that granted the city’s first conditional use permit for the development at 173-5 Market St despite vehement opposition from preservationists, also argued against eliminating conditional use permits.

“We should improve on the process we have now,” Almeida argued. “These motions are fear-based instead of logic-based.”

John Springer, attorney for the Harborcorp project, strenuously objected to changes in the design review process. “I think the process is working quite well,” he told the new Mayor and City Council.

Harborcorp lawyer John Springer strenuously objected to changes in design review

Harborcorp lawyer John Springer strenuously objected to changes in design review

But others on-hand worried that shipping measures to the Planning Board is the bureaucratic equivalent of Siberia.

The proposal to get rid of conditional use permits goes before the City Council to move to first reading on Jan 21 and Public Hearing March 17. Getting rid of design review goes before the City Council March 3. Under NH law, architecture can’t be regulated outside a Historic District, according to City Planning Director Rick Taintor. Still, the idea of launching some kind of architectural review process outside the Historic District will come up again in March.





2 thoughts on “New Portsmouth City Council Votes to Limit Its Own Power

  1. Anne Donaldson

    I will be happy to be a member. I come to as many HDC and Council meetings as I can and am proud of all your work in trying to preserve Portsmouth!


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