What often brings people to New Hampshire and keeps them here? This photo of foliage in North Conway offers a hint. (Joe Raedle | Getty Images)
About 50 years ago, just after finishing graduate school in Ohio, I made the decision to decline some good job offers and move back to New Hampshire. Well, moving back might be a bit of an overstatement, as my life in New Hampshire up until age 24 consisted of summers as a kid on a lake with my family, and then summer jobs living in the Lakes Region during my college years.
When I was a kid, with two parents who worked in the public school system, it was affordable in those days to rent a cottage on a lake for most of the summer. My dad would drive us up in late June, leave me, my sister, and mother at the cottage, and return to being the principal of summer school sessions in New Jersey. After the summer sessions ended, he would drive back up to the lake and we would all stay until Labor Day when the next school year beckoned.
I loved New Hampshire. My childhood days were absorbed with swimming, fishing, hiking, and playing outdoors. My biggest problem was getting back to the cottage late for dinner. When I returned to New Hampshire in the summers during my college years, I had a range of jobs, from working in an architect’s office to digging perc test holes for a septic system designer. The work occupied my weekdays, but hiking occupied my weekends. The White Mountains felt like my backyard.
When I returned to live here full time, it was a decision motivated not so much by opportunities as by a need to plant roots in a place that felt like home. The mountains, the forests, the farms, and the culture of small-town New England all were an irresistible lure. So I packed up my little car, the cat, and the camping gear, and drove to New England with no job, no leads, and the optimism that somehow it was all going to work.
Obviously, it did. After a couple of months of living in various campgrounds and brief stays with family friends, I landed a job and a place to live. Not too many years later, I met the love of my life and we bought some land, built a house, and raised two children who have become successful adults with families of their own. Now, all these years later, I am still here for the same reasons.
So why tell this story? I recently read a couple of studies about why people migrate to New Hampshire and why once here they choose to stay. You wouldn’t be alone if you thought that most new arrivals come because we are the “Live Free or Die” state and taxes are low. Surprise! That’s not it.
A UNH study in 2020 found that the No. 1 reason people moved here is to be with family. Of course, that should be no surprise. But the second most common reason is “the natural environment.” For those who live here and choose to stay, the same two reasons are No. 1 and No. 2. Here’s the surprise: Low taxes was not in the top three, and was cited by under 20 percent of those moving in and only around 20 percent of those already living here.
A more recent study for Stay Work Play conducted by St. Anselm College in 2023 revealed similar answers. When asked why New Hampshire is a better place to live, 83 percent said “the environment.”
Don’t get me wrong: In addition to the environment, there are plenty of good reasons for wanting to live in the Granite State, and lower overall taxes is certainly one of them. But we are not the lowest. Tax Foundation statistics found that when it comes to a low per capita state and local tax burden, we are 16th lowest. Yes, the lowest in New England, but not in the 10 lowest in the nation. And statistics like this are only part of the story, as demonstrated by the two current major lawsuits about the wide disparity of the property tax burden from town to town and the inequitable education funding that results.
But let’s get back to people coming and staying. Our current housing shortage is certainly a damper on the ability of people to move here and stay here, even if they cherish the access to the outdoors and our natural environment. Many proposals – from zoning changes, to requirements that towns allow multiple units on single lots, to public subsidies for affordable multi-family developments – are all in the news. No single one of these will solve the problem.
But in any discussion about creating more housing, so more people can come and stay here, we should remember that what differentiates New Hampshire from other places for most people is our natural environment. We have done a good job of conserving it and continuing to do so is what sets us apart from all those other places with lower taxes, more or higher paying jobs, and other amenities.
It’s encouraging that recent major housing developments like the proposal to replace the Steeplegate Mall in Concord with mixed housing and commercial uses, and the project on the former Rockingham race track in Salem, will use already developed land to meet the housing need. Whenever it’s possible we should find ways to integrate more housing in our existing cities and villages rather than sprawling into the countryside and sacrificing farms, forests, and wildlife habitat. Our rural towns should not be forced to abandon their rural character in order to create more housing. A one-size mandate for zoning changes from the Legislature is sure to meet H.L. Mencken’s observation that “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”
We can certainly find ways to expand the good work that is already being done to support affordable and market-rate housing expansion in New Hampshire. But the mix of solutions will be different in each town or city. Some will involve changing regulations, and some will involve investing our tax dollars to make construction more affordable. Our public policy should be to encourage creativity in our communities, while recognizing that we should never give up our special natural heritage.
Paul Doscher is a retired environmental professional. During his career he worked in both the architecture and building professions, and in land conservation. He lives on his family’s farm in Weare. For more stories on NH visit https://newhampshirebulletin.com/