Commentary: Portsmouth city staff ignores electric vehicle policy –

The production of electric vehicles is ramping up. Several major automobile manufacturers announced that by 2035 half of their new vehicles will be powered by electricity.
In New Hampshire, 47% of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by motor vehicles. A transition to EV would go a long way toward reducing such emissions.
Municipalities are in a position to facilitate this transition to EV by ensuring that their land use regulations do not inadvertently impede the installation of EV “fast chargers,” i.e. those chargers that deliver a (nearly) full charge in 25 minutes.
Portsmouth’s city planners have taken an unusual approach. Their zoning provisions permit fast chargers along three commercial corridors: Lafayette, Woodbury, and the Route 1 Bypass, yet prohibit them elsewhere in the city, most notably on private property in the city center where throngs of tourists congregate.
The logic behind the city’s approach remains a mystery. And that in itself is an egregious violation of Zoning 101: When the government seizes property rights, the government is obliged to provide a coherent rationale for doing so, or so the courts have long ruled.
Portsmouth’s unusual zoning provisions place downtown restaurant and shop owners at a competitive disadvantage vs. other tourist destinations.
The ordinance also makes it impractical for residents with no off-street parking to own an electric vehicle. There are many such residents in the South End and downtown.
On April 5, 2021, City Councilor Esther Kennedy moved to lift the city’s ban on EV fast chargers on private property in the city center. The motion passed unanimously. City staff simply ignored the council’s policy directive.
On May 2, 2022, City Councilor Josh Denton also moved to lift the ban. The meeting minutes read as follows: “On a unanimous roll call 8-0, voted to approve and send the draft zoning ordinance amendments regarding Electric Vehicle Charging Stations to the Planning Board for review and recommendation back to the City Council for first reading.”
Alas, Councilor Denton’s zoning amendment never made it to the Planning Board.
Those Herald readers who are familiar with our city charter are aware that one of the council’s chief responsibilities, as per the charter, is to promulgate public policy. Staff’s primary duty is to implement those policy decisions.
The charter is a foundational document akin to the U.S. Constitution, the difference being that the charter’s jurisdiction extends only to municipal governance. The charter is designed to safeguard democracy by affording city residents the opportunity to vote for city councilors every two years so as to help ensure that the policies that the council adopts are acceptable to the majority of the governed.
When city staff ignores the council’s policy directives, staff is effectively substituting its own policy preferences in place of those adopted by the council. In that scenario, the citizenry has no recourse. When staff ignores the charter and sets itself up as the de facto policy-making authority, they are unlawfully supplanting our democratic process with an autocratic one.
As for city staff’s EV track record, it is painful to contemplate. In lieu of 25-minute fast chargers, staff installed two Level 2 plugs at the High-Hanover garage, and three at Foundry Place. Each will deliver a full charge in 8-plus hours. Who would want to wait around all day for the car to charge? Certainly not short-term visitors or busy residents. City staff has demonstrated that they understand neither the technology nor the market.
The citywide ban on solar farms is yet another example of City Hall autocrats undermining the City Council’s efforts to reduce emissions. The justification for the ban, as staff explained to the city’s Sustainability Committee, is that the solar industry has no interest in doing business in Portsmouth. How does staff know this? Well, they just do.
Enough already with the magical thinking and the circular reasoning. The ban should be lifted.
On Oct. 19, 2020, Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine made a motion to do just that. The motion passed unanimously. What happened next? Well, you guessed it. City staff simply ignored the council.
The current City Council and the previous council have more in common than some would have you believe. Both councils voted unanimously to adopt emission reduction policies that reflect the will of many in our community. City staff should respect our democratic institutions and amend the zoning ordinance to reflect the City Council’s EV and solar policies. Now, not later.
Tom Morgan is a community planner and an advocate for smart growth. He resides in Portsmouth.


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