Tamworth — October 1, 2004 — “They better bring the local boys on board,” advised Sen. John Gallus to state representatives Harry Merrow and David Babson if they are to be successful in repealing SB 458. “If they are coming back with new legislation, they better coming back with total local support.”
Gallus is the prime sponsor of the controversial law that exempts a proposed race track in Tamworth from local ordinances, and Merrow and Babson are co-sponsoring a bill to “flat out repeal” it.
Merrow promised to move against SB 458 in February, immediately after he and 399 others in the House and 24 in the Senate voted for SB 458, now RSA 287-G, which “defines private driving instruction and exhibition facilities and exempts such facilities from local regulation of motor vehicle race tracks.”
Gallus says the repeal bill, expected to be taken up in January, will be successful only if it gets lots of local support. “We look at what’s going on on the ground,” he said. When the Senate looks at a new bill it weighs support, and according to Gallus, local weight leans heavily on the Senate scales.
“We will listen to anyone and everybody gets to comment,” but he said, “It’s going to be to some degree, who do you bring from the local community… selectmen and local people? The senate has a tendency to listen to that type of voice.”
Opponents of SB 458 have charged that the bill was quietly shepherded through the statehouse, and that public hearings were kept secret, or were non-existent. “Of course there were public hearings,” Gallus said, dismissing the dark-of-night theory. “In reality it was put through the whole process with no opposition. Let’s face it, it went through the entire process with no negative comment in the House or the Senate,” he said. “Usually a question will come up and it will go to subcommittee or for study.”
It didn’t, and in March of 2004 it coasted on the consent calendar towards the governor’s desk, days before Tamworth voters would pass a race track ordinance only to be rendered moot by the new state law. “This was the easiest bill I’ve ever seen go through,” reported Gallus.
It remains a mystery and a thorn in the side of opponents to SB 458 that the item was not red-flagged, pulled off the consent calendar and sent to committee. Neither watchdogs from the New Hampshire Municipal Association, Sen.Joe Kenney or local reps recognized the bill and its immediate effect on plans by Club Motorsports Inc. to build a track in Tamworth; plans that would have been restricted by the Tamworth race track ordinance.
The association criticized SB 458 in a bulletin released shortly after the bill’s enactment on May 4. “Senate Bill 458 first came to our attention Wednesday, the day after it became effective,” the association wrote. “While the bill went through the full schedule of notice and public hearings, it certainly remained under the radar screen for many with concerns and moved through the system with unusual speed… We believe it sets a dangerous precedent for seeking legislative relief from local regulation in pending cases where existing municipal and state appeal processes should be used to resolve disagreements.”
“I don’t think they were aware. It happens,” Gallus said. “Some reps voted for the damn thing… then they went back and said we didn’t realize. There was no stealthiness by the senator from Berlin. I’m just not that powerful,” he said. “Maybe the Municipal Association just missed it, and the state reps.”
Kenney, who heads the Senate transportation committee, agreed, noting that two public hearings were held and no opposition comment surfaced from usual lobbying groups. Both he and Gallus stand by the Senate bill as a redefinition of a recreational sport far from the spectacle of a Loudon-style spectator track.
“I think it’s a fantastic bill,” Gallus said. “It was nondescript bill,” he noted, a possible explanation of why it was not flagged for study. “It was just changing the terms of what a racetrack is,” to differentiate a small private practice course from a larger, louder and busier public facility.
The Senate has once already illustrated unwillingness to revisit the bill based upon its ease of passage, Kenney said in an email. “I did attempt to offer an amendment at the late hour in a committee of conference in June 04 to address the oversight issue on such a facility but it was promptly shot down by legislative Conferee members who stated ‘it passed unanimously and what are we trying to do here. Let’s leave it alone.’ I can’t win them all but I am willing to work with the public to come up with a better solution. Repeal of SB 458 in its full form will be difficult in the coming year, but the legislation needs to filed to have the debate so we can strengthen the issue and come out with a better outcome,” Kenney said.
“The bill is a good thing coming back,” Gallus said. “This will give it another chance to be heard. People who feel they didn’t get a fair shake will get one this time around.” Both senators report correspondence from constituents unhappy with the legislation.
“We will sit and look at (the repeal),” he said, adding that the controversy could have been avoided with a passage of zoning ordinances.
“This would be easier to handle with a zoning ordinance,” Gallus said. “My take is that all they had to do was put zoning in place.” And at the time, he said, “we were not aware that Tamworth still had no zoning.”
Gallus suggested that towns with zoning already on the books, might tighten ordinances to specifically target types of development affected by SB 458, namely, driving courses, amusement parks and drive in theaters.
Emergency temporary zoning was turned down by Tamworth voters in October of 2003, only to have some of its language recycled to construct the town’s racetrack ordinance which passed town meeting in March of 2004 with 84 percent voter support. The local racetrack ordinance, SB 458 opponents charge, has been drained of any potency by the passage of the bill.
“This repeal will pass the House but will be a battle in the Senate,” said Babson, cosponsor of the new bill to repeal SB 458. “Strong support will come from the powerful Municipal Association. It will also depend where Speaker Chandler sends the bill; Municipal Committee or back to the Transportation Committee. I honestly don’t believe this is a transportation bill.”