AMHERST, N.H. — Jason Sorens, the man who brought the Free State Project to New Hampshire, did his best to overcome the public’s reservations about his libertarian ambition as he campaigned for a seat on Amherst’s Planning Board.
His critics warned that someone so closely involved with an “insurgent philosophy” shouldn’t be trusted to hold public office, not even to help handle tedious work related to the town’s zoning rules. After all, the thousands of liberty-loving Free Staters who’ve moved to New Hampshire have a reputation of wanting to dismantle government from the inside.
Sorens acknowledged his ties to the FSP, a movement that sprang from an essay he penned two decades ago. But he contended that it’s irrelevant to his vision and passion for the planning board role. His expertise as a land use researcher is far more pertinent, he said.
“I don’t want less regulation. I don’t want more regulation. I want smarter regulation,” he told voters during a candidates forum.
Sorens captured 1,110 votes on March 28, but it wasn’t nearly enough. The two incumbents, Arnie Rosenblatt and Thomas Quinn, sailed to reelection with 1,954 votes and 2,283 votes respectively.
Some have celebrated Sorens’ defeat as a sign that voters are paying attention and rejecting a brand of hardcore libertarianism that has led many in New Hampshire to view Free Staters with a sense of weary wariness. That may be true. But there’s another layer to this story that’s easy to overlook.
Sorens didn’t campaign on a radical agenda to scrap Amherst’s zoning rules, nor did he conceal his identity or his libertarian views. Rather, he made a meticulous case for his candidacy, publicly explained his rationale for supporting certain measures and opposing others, and built a notably broad coalition along the way.
“Planning and zoning issues cut across ideological divides,” Sorens told the Globe. “In my housing work, I’ve spoken to receptive audiences from all over the political map.”
Reforming land-use regulation at the local level may help alleviate New Hampshire’s critical housing shortage, but over the past few years, Amherst has grown more restrictive toward new development, Sorens said. That’s what spurred him to get involved, to show the planning board that the townspeople aren’t on board with a “don’t-build-anything” approach.
“Our town doesn’t need to squelch housing further; if anything, we need a broader range of housing options for young people, retirees, and essential workers — or we’re going to strangle ourselves,” he said.
His website touted support from past colleagues and a variety of locals, including former Amherst Planning Board member Marilyn Eisenberg Peterman, who said she concluded “the Free Stater issue” would be irrelevant to this office.
“I believe that Jason will bring some sanity back to planning and zoning,” she wrote.
Sorens found common cause with conservatives and progressives alike by campaigning against what he sees as a form of NIMBY-ism stifling his community’s potential. It earned him a resounding endorsement from Cornerstone, a conservative Christian advocacy group that praised his “pro-family” approach.
“I’m not surprised that Sorens is getting support from across the political spectrum,” Cornerstone executive director Shannon McGinley told the Globe. “When it comes to housing policy, the division between pro-family and anti-family does not exactly map on to the traditional left-right political divide. There are a few Democrats who do want to make New Hampshire an attractive place to raise children, and there are certainly some Republicans who don’t want any families with children living in their town.”
When it comes to housing policy, the division between pro-family and anti-family does not exactly map on to the traditional left-right political divide.
Kathleen Cavalaro, a progressive Democrat from Rochester, is no fan of the Free State Project’s current leadership or the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire in its current form. But she has urged Democrats to consider collaborating with principled “old party” libertarians on shared priorities. To that end, she called on Democrats in Amherst to help Sorens win.
“In my opinion, Democrats need to be working with anyone who is good on housing policy, but we have the Free State blinders in our eyes,” Cavalaro told the Globe.
But the alarm bells kept blaring for voters like Jack Child, an recently retired Amherst resident who stood by the entrance of Souhegan High School on March 28 to hold a sign in support of reelecting Rosenblatt and Quinn. Child, a veteran who co-founded Veterans Service Brands after retiring as an airline captain, said it was his first time electioneering outside a polling place. He was motivated, he said, by his town being “targeted” by the Free State Project.
Without delving into the policy weeds, Child hinted at the stakes: “I chose Amherst because of its rural character,” he said. “I’d like for us to try to preserve that.”
His sentiment is shared widely in the town of nearly 12,000 people, where 82 percent of residents listed “rural character” as among their high priorities in a 2021 survey about what the town should consider in updating its master plan. The survey also found that 71 percent of residents listed “limit residential density” as a high priority.
Sorens faulted the current planning board majority for seemingly arbitrary decisions that resulted in the town losing three court cases in less than two years.
Rosenblatt, who has been on the board for about 25 years and who has served as its chairman, said the board is committed to an even-handed application of the law.
“There’s going to be development in Amherst, and legally we’re going to be consistent with whatever regulatory and statutory structure we have,” he said.
Rosenblatt said the board is doing its job when it scrutinizes applications for new development in town and weighs competing interests. It’s not accurate to suggest the board members are a bunch of NIMBYs who aim to thwart development, he said.
“On the one hand, I love Amherst the way it is. On the other hand, I fully recognize that there’s a need for housing. I recognize that people have rights as landowners. And we need to reconcile the two. And it’s not always that easy,” he said. “But it’s also not right to make it simplistic and say that someone is just dismissing something out of hand.”
Rosenblatt said he views Sorens as a nice guy, but he “appears to be more sympathetic towards more intensive development than I probably am comfortable with.”
Given the widespread support for preserving the town’s rural character, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the March 28 ballot included several warrant articles that supporters said would guard against “unchecked growth,” minimize the burden on schools and public safety systems, and ease impacts on wildlife habitats and water resources.
One of the proposed zoning ordinance changes, Article 52, sought to prevent “unsightly development” by tightening restrictions for building on lots along Amherst’s scenic roads. The minimum frontage for a lot along such roads would increase from 200 feet to 300 feet.
That change would threaten to upend the retirement plans of Richard “Rick” O’Loughlin and Deborah Rock, who live in a nearly 3,300-square-foot home on one of Amherst’s scenic roads.
O’Loughlin and Rock said they bought 2.3 acres of land adjacent to their current property. Their plan is to build a single-story, senior-friendly house on the new lot, so they can downsize, sell their current place, and settle into retirement. But the new lot has only about 260 feet of frontage. So they worry Article 52 could render their land undevelopable, potentially reducing its value by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“The town is taking away our land rights, and we have to continue to pay taxes on them, so other people can drive by and say, ‘Oh, isn’t that pretty,’” O’Loughlin said. “It’s unfair. It’s unjust.”
Despite their disagreement on other matters, both Rosenblatt and Sorens expressed opposition to Article 52. But a narrow majority of voters cast their ballots in favor of the proposal anyway.
Ordinarily, that simple majority would be enough to enact the change; however, its fate remains undetermined because of a provision of state law that allows landowners to protest proposed changes to local zoning ordinances.
A protest petition against Article 52 was filed with the town prior to the March 28 vote. If it succeeds, then the approval threshold would rise from a simple majority of votes cast to a two-thirds majority. That would defeat the proposal.
The whole protest petition process is so technical that town administrator Dean Shankle said Amherst had to get help from an expert in geographic information systems to determine whether the petition has enough signatures from the right landowners. That process is ongoing.
Shankle said he has worked in town government in New Hampshire for 35 years, and this is the first time he’s encountered a protest petition. As if that weren’t complicated enough, the petition against Article 52 is one of five protest petitions that Amherst is dealing with, he said.
It’s unclear how long it will take for Amherst officials to determine conclusively whether the contested warrant articles passed or failed, but Sorens signaled optimism that the protest petitions would prevail.
“The good news,” Sorens wrote in a tweet after acknowledging his loss, “is that if all protest petitions are certified, every single exclusionary measure on the ballot will have been defeated!”
Sorens said he wasn’t personally involved in collecting signatures for the protest petitions. A local group he’s been working with wasn’t involved either, though members may have acted individually to support the protest petitions, he said.
His post-election message was consistent with what he said prior to the votes being tallied. While he stood outside the polls and chatted with voters about the intricacies of Amherst’s zoning proposals, Sorens told the Globe that he saw multiple paths to success: he could perform well as a candidate, or voters could defeat the ill-conceived proposals. Either way, that would send a message, he said, that the town needs to take a more reasonable approach to planning and growth.
This article has been updated with additional information about an Amherst resident at the polling location.