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Name: Nancy Pearson
Occupation: I help women start and grow their businesses as the New Hampshire director for the Center for Women & Enterprise
Years living in Portsmouth: 8
Public service experience:
– Board member then director for Art-Speak, Portsmouth’s Cultural Commission
– Two-term City Council member
– Committee work: Historic District Commission, Economic Development Committee, Master Plan for Prescott Park Committee, Foundry Garage Committee, Bridge Street/Worth Lot/Vaughan Mall Open Space Committee, Pease Community Assistance Panel (CAP) for PFAS, Percent for Art at Foundry Place Committee, Peirce Island Committee, Chamber Collaborative liaison, Committee to Appoint Police Commissioner, Committee to oversee the hiring process for new city manager
– Presenter and speaker at statewide conferences on: public art, economic development, cultural planning, creative place making
Q1: What can the city do to increase its supply of affordable housing?
I think it’s important to recognize all we have accomplished in the last four years. Approximately 150 units of affordable and/or workforce housing have either come online or are in the pipeline. Those include 15 approved ADUs (accessory dwelling units) across the city, the Portsmouth Housing Authority project at Court Street (64 units), the West End Yards units (approximately 30 units), the 40-plus new units at Arbor View, and Hillcrest Estates. This is a healthy mix of residents taking advantage of the new ADU opportunity in the city, private development projects, federally funded public housing, as well as development projects that utilized a conditional use permit.
We often neglect to stop and take notice of our accomplishments, but these projects were hard fought and didn’t happen overnight. City Council members made affordability a priority, continued to champion and support projects, and had the will to create and enact policies that made a difference.
Q2: Are there specific areas in the city budget where you think spending cuts can be made? Are there specific areas where you think spending should be increased?
Our budget reflects the values of our community. Portsmouth schools are among the top performing in the state, which is something with which we take immense pride. The city of Portsmouth is a service provider and, as such, salaries and benefits make up the majority (77 percent) of the budget, with the school budget being the largest piece.
The city negotiates with about 15 different unions and provides health insurance to hundreds of employees. In the past, the state contributed up to 30 percent of the benefits to public employees, but over the last decade budget cuts in Concord reduced that to zero, leaving communities like Portsmouth in the position to rely on property taxes to make up the balance. This explains the increase in the budget each fiscal year.
In my four years as a council member, I have not seen the appetite from this community for a reduction in staff or services. On the contrary, residents ask for more services, more programs in our schools, and quicker response times. Balancing the high expectations of the community with fiscal conservatism is the challenge the council faces each budget cycle.
It’s worth noting that the budget also reflects important and necessary improvements and investment in our basic infrastructure. Citywide water-sewer separation, upgrades to our wastewater facilities, and upgrades to all of our schools were much-needed projects, talked about (even neglected) for years, and finally came to fruition.
Q3: Do you support a citywide ban on single-use disposables such as plastic bags, plastic straws, and Styrofoam containers?
I support the spirit of the proposal, but until the N.H. Legislature takes action and writes enabling legislation to allow municipalities the freedom to enact such policies, it will be a challenge to pass something citywide. This is why Councilor Denton’s ordinance on regulating single-use plastics on just city-owned property is so compelling. It takes a step, states a value, and does so on property we can control.
Q4: Regarding the McIntyre redevelopment project:
A) Do you support the Redgate/Kane plan?
If by Redgate/Kane “plan” you mean the program and design of the McIntyre project, I would say yes… but we aren’t there yet. We have yet to see the design. We have seen the intended uses and square footage of the redevelopment, but not a design. Identifying the program for the site was necessary to meet the stringent economic development requirements of the GSA and for the developer’s ability to obtain financing. But the look and feel of the buildings, the materiality, and how the buildings relate to the other structures that surround them haven’t been revealed yet; the architecture team is still in progress. The project has yet to go through the land use boards approval process, with multiple opportunities for public input. I support the plan, but we still have a long way to go.
B) Do you think the Council should step back and consider other plans, such as the one put forth by Bill Binnie?
This project didn’t come along suddenly overnight. The opportunity to partner with the city was laid out clearly. Mr. Binnie could have submitted a proposal to the city through the fully transparent and competitive RFQ and RFP process, as the other developers did. The process was well promoted, had clear parameters, and a deadline. I don’t see why he, or anyone else, should receive special treatment a year or more after the deadline.
Q5: What can be done to clean up and prevent PFAS contamination and other chemical contaminants on the Seacoast?
The quickest way to prevent PFAS is to stop manufacturing and using products that contain these chemicals. PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, but are still produced internationally and can be imported into the United States in consumer goods such as carpet, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber, and plastics. PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they take decades to break down in nature and can build up in the body.
Recently, NHDES tightened the safety standards for PFAS in drinking water. This is excellent news and puts New Hampshire on the forefront of this escalating issue. Right now, all our municipal wells test below the new standards, but that will need to be monitored closely for variances. As for cleanup, currently we have local, state, and federal agencies all working together on this issue, thanks to the efforts of grassroots advocates right here in Portsmouth, and that continued collaborative effort is the best course of action.
Q6: Do you feel that development in Portsmouth — particularly of luxury condos, hotels, and other large-scale buildings — should be curtailed?
I understand and share the development fatigue expressed by residents across the city, especially as it relates to projects that all seem the same. Some people say old Portsmouth is disappearing, and I can empathize. I don’t want to see a large, six-story hotel near the Foundry Garage either. That’s why three years ago I spearheaded the formation of a committee to reclaim the Bridge Street Worth Lot/Vaughan Mall for permanent green and open public space. It’s public property the city can actually control.
Realistically, I don’t see a legal path to “curtailing” development on private property. New Hampshire is a state with very strong property rights statutes, which place numerous limitations on a community when reviewing land use proposals. Limiting growth can have unintended consequences, either stalling economic development or inflating the cost of real estate.
Again, I think we should recognize all that has been done to address some of the issues with development. Since the last council I sat on updated and amended our zoning, no project has come online since Portwalk that is as big as Portwalk. In fact, the largest project could fit inside Portwalk two and a half times. That’s a good thing! Also, the city has been effective in getting developers to provide more meaningful public benefit; we have acres of waterfront parks, public art, and even affordable housing units in the pipeline. This is a positive outcome and the right direction to manage and control growth so it aligns better with our values and our surroundings.
Q7: What are your feelings on the idea of building a permanent covered stage in Prescott Park for festival events?
I responded very positively to the contemporary stage design that PPAF invested in a few years ago, but then the Prescott Park master planning process took place and the conversation shifted to a high-quality temporary stage. I see both sides of the argument here. I understand the “park first” philosophy that guided the Prescott Park Master Plan, and the desire to clear the park of any structures during the offseason.
However, I also understand that when it comes to large-scale musical productions, a temporary stage that works well for a concert is probably not going to be adequate for musical theater. Savannah’s Forsythe Park Amphitheatre is a terrific example of a public park in an historic city that has a contemporary stage and it fits beautifully into the environment. They seemed to have struck just the right balance with permanent staging in a public park, and I think Portsmouth can figure this out too.
Q8: Should the city add more bike lanes and/or take other measures to improve bicycle safety and/or reduce motor-vehicle traffic downtown?
Clearly some people are still uneasy with the narrowing of the road and having cars parked closer toward the centerline. As a silver-medal bike-friendly city, I don’t think we should abandon the concept of protected bike lanes, but we should continue to adjust and explore how we can make them work on our narrow streets.
Q9: Are there any significant projects that should be undertaken outside of the downtown area and Islington Street corridor?
Yes, there are a few significant projects in the works that will positively impact residents across the city, from school-age children to our seniors. These include the new senior activity center on Cottage Street, which just broke ground; the outdoor recreation fields on Campus Drive; and the sound barriers in the residential areas along I-95, which is a joint project with the Department of Transportation pending state allocation of funds. I sat on the council that approved each of these much-needed projects.
Q10: A times this summer, there were road closures on Islington Street, Woodbury Avenue (by the traffic circle), Maplewood Avenue, and other roads all at once. Is there a way to reduce the heavy concentration of road work that creates detours and traffic congestion in the summer?
There are a couple of things at play with regard to roadwork. First, there is a very brief window of decent, reliable weather for road construction. Many treatments simply can’t be put down if there is a danger of frost, so that leaves just a few precious months to get as many projects completed as possible. You’ve heard the one about the four seasons in New Hampshire, right? Winter, winter, still winter, and road construction.
Second, some of our projects are funded through grants or through the Department of Transportation, and that often controls the timeline. That means that coordination with other municipal projects isn’t always an option and can result in simultaneous, inconvenient projects across the city.
Q11: What actions should be taken at the city level to address climate change?
Over the last four years, the Portsmouth City Council has taken more action to address climate change than the legislature has for the state of New Hampshire. These include a regional approach to sea-level rise, becoming a net-zero energy community, the creation of a renewable energy policy, introducing renewable-energy tax credits, offering renewable-energy tax exemptions, regulating single-use plastics on city property, and proposing a ban on single-use Styrofoam containers citywide. I anticipate that Portsmouth will continue to lead the state in this area.
Q12: Name one of the biggest challenges and one of the biggest opportunities Portsmouth will face in the next 10 to 20 years.
I think the hiring and settling in of our new city manager is both a challenge and an opportunity. One person can make quite an impact on a community over the course of a career. It’s important that our new city manager has the ability to help this community realize our vision for the future. Change can be a challenge, as we get used to a new personality, management style, and someone with different priorities and a different perspective. But it’s also an incredible opportunity.
Unlike when Mr. Bohenko arrived, our new city manager will enter into the role with big infrastructure projects mostly completed, with staff department heads regarded as experts in the region, and with a AAA bond rating. We now have an opportunity for a fresh perspective and some new ideas. With the many different modes of communication and information sources, our expectations of accessibility and inclusivity, and the way technology can aid in connecting the community to local government, it’s an exciting time to transition, welcome, and embrace the next era of leadership in Portsmouth.
BONUS: What are you gonna be for Halloween?
No clue! I’m a last-minute costume person.