Obtaining approvals to build on Class VI and private roads in New Hampshire can be difficult. RSA 674:41 generally prevents New Hampshire municipalities from issuing building permits for structures, unless the street giving access to the lot is a Class V or better highway. Therefore, most local building permit applications for development on Class VI or private roads will be promptly denied. The exception is the relatively rare situation where the town‘s governing body has already preapproved building on certain Class VI or private roads.
These hurdles are meant to ensure that a dwelling may be reached by first responders and other agencies charged with protecting public safety and welfare. They also make it less likely that the town will have to maintain the road over time.
However, the development restriction often has unfair consequences. This is especially true in areas that were developed prior to the enactment of the statute. Rural areas with a larger number of Class VI and private roads can also suffer. For this reason, landowners with lots accessed by Class VI or private roads can seek hardship approvals from the local government by:
- Seeking a reasonable exception to the building permit denial under RSA 674:41 due to the statute’s application causing a practical difficulty or unnecessary hardship; or
- Seeking a variance to local frontage requirements.
The town’s approval of either option will generally convert the property into a buildable lot.
Reasonable Exceptions for Building Permits under RSA 674:41
RSA 674:41 provides an administrative appeals process. This allows landowners to appeal the denial of their building permits to the zoning board of adjustment (ZBA). The process generally works this way:
- The building official or board of selectmen deny the building permit application.
- The landowner files an appeal of the denial to the ZBA (or the local legislative body or to a board of appeals, depending on the structure of the municipality). This allows a public hearing before the board.
- If the municipality does not require building permits, the landowner can make a direct application to the zoning board of adjustment, local legislative body, or board of appeals.
- At the hearing, the landowner requests a reasonable exception to the building permit prohibition. They can argue that the application of the statute will cause a practical difficulty or unnecessary hardship and that the project does not require the structure to be related to the street.
- When voting on the appeal, the board may make any fair exception and shall have the power to authorize or issue the building permit, subject to such conditions as it may impose, if the issuance of the permit or erection of the building:
- would not tend to warp the official map or increase the difficulty of carrying out the master plan; and
- if the erection of the building or issuance of the permit will not cause hardship to future purchasers or undue financial impact on the municipality.
- The board’s decision must be in writing, together with the reasons supporting its decision.
Variances to Local Frontage Requirements
Under RSA 674:41, landowners can separately seek a variance from the ZBA to the local zoning ordinance‘s frontage requirements. Many towns in New Hampshire have incorporated similar restrictions to RSA 674:41 and require lots to have a certain frontage on Class V or better highways.
Variance requests to dimensional zoning requirements are considered under the elements set forth in RSA 674:33. The ZBA can approve the variance request if:
- the variance request will not be contrary to the public interest;
- the spirit of the ordinance is observed;
- substantial justice is done;
- the values of surrounding properties are not diminished; and
- literal enforcement of the provisions of the ordinance would result in an unnecessary hardship.
Most variance requests focus on the unnecessary hardship element by asserting that:
- building on the lot is reasonable and the only way to make use of the property; and
- there is no fair and substantial relationship between the general public purpose of the frontage requirements and the specific application of that provision to the property.
Seeking an appeal from a building permit denial under RSA 674:41 does not preclude the landowner from later seeking a variance to the local building requirements and vice versa. See Merriam Farm, Inc. v. Town of Surry, 168 N.H. 197 (2015).
The landowner’s strategy must include determining which approval to seek first. In most situations, it is likely better to seek a variance prior to the building permit. For example, the standard under RSA 674:41 for building permit appeals is more amorphous than the standard applicable to variances under RSA 674:33. RSA 674:41 arguably provides the ZBA more leeway in approving the development request. On the other hand, this amorphous standard also gives the ZBA more leeway in denying the building permit.
In addition, building permits are typically sought after all the zoning entitlements are obtained. This occurs towards the end of the development process. The town staff may not even process the building permit application if the zoning prerequisites are not first met.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court has further stated that obtaining a building permit through the appeals process in RSA 674:41 does not relieve the landowner from obtaining a variance to local frontage requirements if they are stricter than state law. See Rowell Real Estate Invest. Trust v. Town of Kingston, 2006 WL 8418218 (2006); Belluscio v. Town of Westmoreland, 139 N.H. 55 (1994).
When conducting due diligence on real property or building entitlements, landowners may want to consider:
- Determining whether the municipality has previously and explicitly granted the ability to develop on the particular Class VI or private road.
- Seeking a variance under RSA 674:33 to the local frontage requirements.
- If the variance is denied and the landowner has exhausted administrative remedies, applying for a building permit directly under the process in RSA 674:41. This may allow for a second bite at the apple.