House Passes Repeal of Racetrack Law

Concord — April 7, 2005 — The N.H. House Wednesday resoundingly passed an amended version of HB 90, drafted by Carroll County representatives to repeal the racetrack law that stripped away local control over the course planned for Tamworth’s Mount Whittier.

The amended HB 90 — now headed for the Senate after a 273-76 House vote — could bring the Club Motorsports Inc. road course back under regulation of Tamworth laws, sponsors say.

Should tracks like the 251-acre CMI facility fail to operate strictly as a “practice driving instruction and exhibition facility” as defined by the controversial year-old racetrack law, HB 90 would allow them to be governed by town ordinances, House sponsors said.

“In effect we’re saying we’re leaving the new definition in,” HB 90 sponsor, State Rep. Harry Merrow, R-Ossipee, told lawmakers in a third day of legislative session Wednesday. “If you’re not a racetrack, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” Merrow said. “Turn it into a racetrack, and local towns and local selectmen have control of it.”

The amended repeal strikes out only one clause from last year’s law, RSA 287-G, which could give Tamworth some control even if CMI runs a practice-only facility. The clause exempts the newly-defined private tracks from certain local laws, including a Tamworth sound ordinance, passed this year at town meeting, to target only “practice driving instruction and exhibition facilities.”

“I believe, and so does the town attorney, that the most recently passed ordinance is not enforceable… because of RSA 287-G,” Merrow said, referring to the sound ordinance. HB 90 would allow towns to pass laws, like the sound ordinance, regulating “practice driving instruction and exhibition facilities.”

The repeal, Merrow and other local representative say, is primarily aimed at protecting local control in all towns in New Hampshire. State Rep. Crow Dickinson, R-Conway, said last week that nothing can stop CMI from breaking ground on its $28 million project in Tamworth, which has no zoning regulations. “Nothing can help those people,” he said last Wednesday.

In the wake of RSA 287-G, Dickinson said Wednesday, even towns with zoning ordinances (those not specifically addressing racetracks) would not be able to regulate a similar facility. “I received a call from Conway’s board of selectmen,” Dickinson said. “They said we are vulnerable.”

“Any other town in this state that has zoning that does not include a racetrack, is open to same restriction of local oversight,” Dickinson said. “The noise ordinance… will be void,” he said. “This present law would void it as it is.”

Wednesday’s vote came after legislators first overturned a strong House committee report to kill the repeal. Echoing testimony last week by House Municipal Government Committee Chair, State Rep. Betsey Patten, R-Moultonborough, whose committee voted 14-5 to kill HB 90, State Rep. Jack Dowd, R-Derry, Wednesday called the repeal effort the work of a minority, anti-development group.

“This is what happens when a focus group with a lot of money decides they know better than their town,” Dowd said Wednesday, adding that Tamworth selectmen and a silent majority in Tamworth support both RSA 287-G, and the track, and its promised jobs and tax revenues. “This has nothing to do with local control,” Dowd said.

State Rep. Peter Schmidt, D-Dover, who wrote the committee minority report in favor of HB 90, however, called the outpouring of support for the repeal, and public outrage against a “slippery” passage of SB 458, “overwhelming.”

Schmidt downplayed a so-called “silent majority,” telling House members it was not only silent, but invisible at two House public hearings — one in a packed gymnasium in Tamworth, and a second in Legislators Hall in Concord. “Like a child’s monster under the bed, every time you look for the silent majority that supported the track,” Schmidt said, “you can’t find any real evidence of it.”

“This is not an up or down vote on the track in Tamworth,” he said. “This is not an up or down vote on economic development in the North Country. This is about local control.” Local legislators have said right along they are not against development or the Club Motorsports track, rather they have faulted a “deceptive” legislative process that let developers make an end-run to the legislature, skirting town laws. “Local control,” Merrow said Wednesday. “I’ve heard it time and time again in this legislature. What happened?” he asked. “Would you want your town to lose local control?”

Merrow, Dickinson and others spoke cynically Wednesday of CMI’s promises to operate a strictly practice, non-racing facility, with Dickinson invoking a common cliche from recent public hearing testimonials, “if it walks like a duck… then it is a duck,” he said.

Merrow said CMI websites and signage, advertising “speed,” and “asphalt racing,” and some ads billing 365-day-a-year operations, inviting snowmobiles in the winter, warn that a racetrack in effect is coming to Tamworth. “I wonder what this would have been like if this was a racetrack,” Merrow joked, drawing muted laughter from legislators Wednesday.

Senate sponsors of SB 458 have said, without overwhelming local support, a straight repeal of the racetrack law could meet a cold reception in the Senate. Dickinson said last week, that the Senate will almost certainly pass the amended version.

“I think they will go along with it,” he said. “I can’t see them doing anything otherwise.”

The Senate is expected to vote on HB 90 by June 9.

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