House Committee Rejects Repeal of Controversial Racetrack Bill

Concord — March 24, 2005 — The House Municipal and County Government Committee on Tuesday voted 14-5 to kill legislation that would repeal the controversial racetrack bill which robbed Tamworth of control over the motorsports park planned for Mount Whittier.

Brushing aside charges by local representatives and hundreds of area residents and officials that big business and shady politics drove passage of SB 458, committee members said state legislators were not “snookered” by sponsors of the racetrack bill. The committee was apparently swayed more by a “silent majority” of Tamworth residents, based on written testimony and voting patterns, than the hundreds of residents of surrounding towns who came out to hearings in support of the repeal.

“I’m talking about Tamworth people,” Rep. Betsey Patten of Moultonborough, committee chair, said Tuesday after voting with the majority to block the repeal she said Tamworth citizens and selectmen simply didn’t want. “We need to let local people make their decision.”

“I just don’t think we were snookered,” she said. “Our committee thought that wasn’t a valid complaint. If the reps didn’t know what was going on — it happens to all of us.” The entire House will vote on the repeal, HB 90, next Wednesday or Thursday, Patten said.

Committee dissenters and repeal supporters were livid after Tuesday’s vote, charging that committee members sided with state rule over local control, and said the vote encourages developers to run to the state house in hopes of flouting town laws.

“I am extremely disappointed,” said Willie Farnum of Tamworth, a member of the citizen’s group, Focus: Tamworth, fighting to reverse the effects of SB 458. “The state of New Hampshire wants to allow people to come to Concord and find a way around local laws.”

Rep. Peter Schmidt of Dover, who will write the minority opinion, promised to raise a fight on the House floor during deliberations before a final House vote on the repeal next week. “They don’t seem to care what the people of Tamworth think,” Schmidt said by telephone Tuesday after the vote. “Due to the great deal of contention, there will be a floor fight.”

Schmidt said despite Patten’s insistence that Tamworth wants the Club Motorsports Inc. track, he is troubled by the apparent dishonesty in the legislature, he and others said lurks behind the town’s loss of local control. Schmidt’s comments Tuesday echoed persistent testimony from hundreds of area citizens and public officials, who have regularly overrun public hearings, and argued passionately against the state law, they say stole local control while leaving an ugly stain on the legislative process.

“The committee decided they are in favor of killing the bill, that the track is going to be good for Tamworth. They believe the people of Tamworth want this, that it will bring tremendous revenue, that it will be good for Tamworth,” Schmidt said. “I said that’s all well and good, but utterly irrelevant. This repeal is not at all about the racetrack coming for Tamworth,” he said. “It’s about the integrity and ethics of the legislative process.”

“The issue is whether the process used to remove local control is ethical and honest. They all felt it was not, and I agree,” Schmidt said, referring to repeal sponsors, Reps. Harry Merrow and David Babson of Ossipee, Rep. Crow Dickinson of Conway and State. Rep. Don Philbrick of Eaton, who all have spoken against SB 458. “It can hardly be described as an honest process. SB 458 had to be cleverly maneuvered through the senate and house to get that lack of attention,” he said. “In my view there were deceptive omissions on the part of sponsors.”

Babson, cosponsor of the repeal drafted by Merrow, told the committee last month, that legislators were “snookered” when SB 458 was shepherded through the house and senate by developers and special interests, and accused senate sponsors of coercion and secrecy intended to subvert local control.

“Madame Chair, this was nothing more than a blatant and successful attempt to deceive and subvert the democratic process. There was never any intention to have an open discussion about this bill. It was deceptive legislation and we should all join together as representatives of the people of this State and do the right thing, repeal it,” he told Patten’s committee.

Babson, Merrow, Philbrick, Dickinson, and selectmen from most area towns, save Tamworth, testified in strong language against the process that passed the controversial bill. “It deserves to be killed for no other reason than the terrible process,” Dickinson said in Tamworth in February, before a local crowd of over of 150, the vast majority in support of the repeal.

However, Patten said, the strongest outpouring of support for the repeal came from local communities surrounding Tamworth, but not from within the town most directly impacted by the track. “Seventy-five percent of people who were against (SB 458) were from outside Tamworth,” Patten said Tuesday. “We also heard from people who weren’t at the hearings… Tamworth people.”

A silent majority, much talked about in recent months but nearly invisible at public hearings, weighed heavily on the committee’s vote, Patten said. Track supporters, including Tamworth selectmen, have testified that Tamworth wants the track, and have called vocal and seemingly omnipresent opponents of SB 458, a “special interest group.” Patten said Tuesday that letters from track supporters in Tamworth, coupled with what committee members recognized as a voting pattern indicating that the town now favors the track, drove the vote to kill the repeal.

“The fact is that the town of Tamworth voted five times not to do a zoning ordinance,” Patten said. “The 84 percent that voted for a (race track ordinance), was 243-23,” she said, a turnout of 266. “But 553 voted in October of 2003 not to pass emergency temporary zoning, to 423,” a total of 976, she said. Tamworth is beginning to tell us it wants the track.”

Patten’s vote counts were not confirmed with the town of Tamworth. Focus members, however, point to this year’s Tamworth Town Meeting, where voters by about a 65 percent margin passed a noise ordinance to regulate “private driving instruction and exhibition facilities,” as SB 458 ultimately defined the track.

“After the passage of the race track ordinance in 2004 and now the noise ordinance, Tamworth voters clearly want some regulation of this development,” Focus spokesman Charles Greenhalgh said in a press release.

The state law superseded the town’s racetrack ordinance, that many Tamworth citizens called a pure example of volunteerism and open-air grass roots democracy. In sharp contrast, supporters of the repeal said, SB 458 was hatched in a shady back-room deal, that left Tamworth unable to regulate a motorsports park, sited for development on Mount Whittier, by Club Motorsports Inc.

Club Motorsports spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne noted, that like the entire house and senate, who last year voted unanimously for SB 458, the committee Tuesday voted overwhelmingly in favor of a law that defined practice driving courses — separating them from larger, louder spectator racetracks.

But unlike after the passage of SB 458 in 2004, he said, repeal seekers can’t complain that legislative secrecy interfered with due process on this, the issue’s second time around.

“Our opponents, Focus Tamworth, can’t say they didn’t have their say in this hearing,” Tranchemontagne said Wednesday. “They not only had an unprecedented hearing in their community, they got a second hearing again in Concord. The people at Focus had their day in court.”

Assertions by recently-appointed Tamworth Selectman David Haskell, and fellow Selectman Mariette Ross, came amidst a wave of outrage at the February hearing in Concord, flowed over from a repeal hearing in Tamworth the week prior, where about 34 area selectmen, citizens, and local reps — the vast majority of a recorded 37 speakers — called SB 458’s passage deceptive, and its negation of local rule unthinkable. A group of nearly 50 repeal seekers again rallied at the state house, many telling the House committee they were angry with “stealth politics,” “cronyism” and “subterfuge,” allegedly behind SB 458, now state law RSA 287 G.

Haskell and Ross testified in Concord — breaking board neutrality on the track for the first time — that Tamworth welcomes Club Motorsports, and its promised new jobs and tax relief, and said that he town had not lost local control as a result of SB 458. Even in the wake of SB 458 (now state law RSA 287-G) the town can easily regulate development, Patten agreed Tuesday.

“Even without zoning, selectmen have ability to take care of what’s going on,” she said, noting the sound ordinance, and a town wetlands permit, she said would be “hard to get” for developers. “We felt the town of Tamworth is left with several other means to regulate development.”

Patten went on to say the racetrack ordinance resembled “spot zoning,” she said unfairly targeting only the track. “It looks like a dogfight with development,” she said. Patten was likewise unimpressed by testimony from members of the House Transportation Committee, who testified in February that when they first heard developers’ pitch for SB 458, critical information was withheld from deliberation by the sponsors.

State Rep. Kimberley Casey and Scanlon said that they were told by SB 458 sponsors that the bill would have no impact on Tamworth’s ability to regulate development. “We were assured over and over again, that this would keep the town able to do what they had to do,” Casey said, calling the process “failed.”

Casey refrained from charging deception, when pressed by Schmidt and other municipal committee members. “In retrospect this bill was not presented in a way that I was clearly able to comprehend its application in town,” she said. “Deception? I think you’re stepping down too far.”

“We were bluntly told, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, zoning will take care of it,'” said Scanlon, who served on the house committee with Casey, and agreed that crucial information was left out of the house debates. “A piece of the puzzle was not put in,” Scanlon said. “We were not told that Tamworth didn’t have any zoning,” he said. “This was a little bit close to spot legislation.”

“We were not swayed by the two members of the transportation committee,” Patten said Tuesday. “Sometimes committee members don’t get the whole thing,” she said. “We felt it was important to let the decision stand.”

House deliberation and vote on the repeal, expected for Wednesday or Thursday of next week, will be scheduled on the House calendar by Friday, Patten said.

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