Housing Permit Approvals

How many single and multi-family new housing permits were issued by communities in the Piscataqua Region from 2000 to 2015?

There were 19,483 multi-family and single-family new housing permits issued in the 42 New Hampshire towns in the watershed from 2000 to 2015. There were 331 new housing permits issued in the ten Maine towns in the watershed in 2015.


The Piscataqua Region is a desirable place to live, and as the population increases, so too do pressures. The number of housing permit approvals in the Piscataqua Region provides good context for considering an increase in population, and the commensurate disturbance of the land to support that population. If not properly mitigated and planned for, construction can change the hydrology of the land and can lead to short-term soil erosion. New housing units increase impervious cover, which can lead to more stormwater and sediment runoff and nutrient loading. Since the U.S. Census is run every ten years, monitoring housing permit approvals gives us a more frequent indicator of increase in population, demand for development, and conversion of land to housing. Additionally, monitoring new housing permit approvals can shed light on economic development trends, migration patterns, shifting demographics, and overall pressure on our coastal and recreational resources. Furthermore, as development trends shift geographically, it can also help communities understand where development pressure is occurring and can prime conversations about smart growth and low-impact development practices that allow for an increase in population and economic development and the protection of sensitive, natural areas.
No goal.

Population pressure on the nation’s 452 coastal shoreline counties has been continually on the rise. In 2010, 123.3 million people, or 39% of the nation’s population, lived in counties directly on the shoreline (called coastal shoreline counties) and 52% reside in coastal watershed counties (upriver and on tributaries from the shore). This population is expected to increase by 8%, or 10 million more people, by 2020. Not only are there more people living on the coast, the population density far outweighs the rest of the U.S. There are 446 persons per square mile in coastal shoreline counties and 319 persons per square mile in coastal watershed counties nationwide. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the U.S., which averages 105 persons per square mile. Nationwide, there were 1,355 building permits issued per day in coastal shoreline counties from 2000–2010.63

This trend rings true in the Piscataqua Region. There were 386,658 people living in our three coastal and estuarine counties in 2015—an increase of 126,453 people since 1980.64 There is also close alignment to the national density numbers, with 317 persons per square mile in NH watershed towns and 216 persons per square mile in Maine watershed towns in 2015 (Figure 21.3). In 2015 more people moved into New Hampshire then moved out of it; ~53,000 residents moved into New Hampshire, and 42,000 left the state.65
Population increases can bring many positive benefits to communities and the region, including:

  • Increase in the tax base
  • Enhanced tourist economy
  • Additional people to enjoy and steward our lands (see Stewardship Behavior)
  • Growth of local business and commerce
  • Diversificiation of our socio-economic structure

However, more housing development also means more services for communities to provide such as schools, road maintenance, police, fire, public services, etc., all requiring more pull on already strained municipal budgets.

Historically, New Hampshire’s population is among the most mobile in the nation. Only a third of New Hampshire residents age 25 and older were born in the state (Figure 21.4)66. This is an important consideration to reflect as this kind of demographic shift can mark how policy is made at the town level and can help inform outreach partners on the best engagement tactics for reaching a different type of taxpayer and resident who are more accustomed to state-level environmental policies.

As pressure on existing housing stock increases, so does the need for new units. An accepted indicator for new development is the number of approved new housing unit permits in each town. It is important to note that an approved permit does not always equate to the actual construction of the unit; permits are often pulled but development can stall due to various factors. The construction sector in the 42 New Hampshire watershed towns experienced an all-time high in 2000 and an all-time low in 2009. Since then, it has been rising incrementally (Figure 21.5). There are confounding factors as to why the construction sector has not bounced back as robustly since 2009, including loss of construction workers, limitations of local regulations and lack of build-able lots.68

Of particular note is the recent increase in multi-family unit permit approvals (dark blue bars in Figure 21.5). In the last six years, these have steadily kept pace with single-family units. From a land use perspective this is encouraging, as multi-family units often have an overall smaller lot size per person than typical, single-family, one-acre lot zoning.

The NH Office of Energy and Planning provides a very useful statewide data clearinghouse for all NH housing data. Table 21.2 shows the percent change, which gives a relative sense of growth as compared to the baseline of 2000. Absolute changes in housing units from 2000 to 2015 provide another interesting perspective. Table 21.3 displays the 10 New Hampshire Piscataqua Region towns that have seen the largest absolute changes in housing units. Additionally, when looking at where the newest development is occurring (Tables 21.2 and 21.3), it is important to note that it is increasing in towns that are upwatershed from Great Bay and in communities that have been more traditionally rural. There can be negative impacts when converting land from open space to development, especially along smaller tributaries. Engaging the tenets of low impact development should become increasingly more important in these communities.

For the Piscataqua Region municipalities in Maine, data on new single family housing permit approvals is available on a town-by-town basis (Table 21.4). Each municipality publishes an annual Town Report that includes a chapter from the Town Code Enforcement Officer. PREP extracted the number of new single-family housing permits reported in each of the 10 Maine watershed communities from 2015 (the latest year all 10 communities had publicly available data at the time of publication). PREP anticipates continuing to collect Maine municipalities’ data year-to-year and developing trend analyses for the next State of Our Estuaries Report

Figure 21.3 Population and housing densities in the Piscataqua Region: census years 2000 and 2010.

Figure 21.4 Created by The New York Times, this graphic shows the make-up of New Hampshire residents living in the state as of 2012.

Figure 21.5 New building permits in the Piscataqua Region watershed communities in New Hampshire.

Table 21.2 Top 10 New Hampshire Piscataqua Region watershed communities with the largest percent change in units from 2000-2015.

Table 21.3 Top 10 New Hampshire Piscataqua Region watershed communities with the largest absolute changes in housing units.

Table 21.4 Maine Piscataqua Region watershed communities housing permit data in 2015.