Big Crowd Tells Tamworth Planners: Just Say ‘No’ to Racetrack Permit

Tamworth — October 19, 2006 — Environmental groups, lakefront homeowners, worried citizens and town conservation boards mobilized in force Tuesday night for a public hearing where the majority of speakers pleaded with local planning officials to deny a building permit to Club Motorsports Inc.

The company’s bid to build a mountainside racing resort near a farflung aquifer and conservation forest could have grim environmental implications, warned the overwhelming majority at a public hearing in the school gym. No decision was reached. The next Tamworth Planning Board meeting is 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25.

CMI’s highly technical application comes before the planning board amidst ongoing conflict between the company and its critics. The chilly standoff has ensured intense scrutiny of all CMI-related activities. A latest set of plans revised to meet local wetlands regulations is no exception.

CMI insisted the layout of its three-mile asphalt “ribbon through the woods” touched wetlands on only a tiny fraction of the project’s roughly 250 acres. No endangered species would be harmed; no unique habitat was identified by the federal government; and no damage to ground or surface waters could happen under the company’s exhaustive pollution controls, assured CMI’s Jim Gove.

A vernal pool will be protected by swaths of open land, and a corridor will be cut through the fences for large animal migration, Gove said.

“The wetlands will continue to support wildlife,” he said.

But over and over came condemnations and concerns that the multi-million-dollar project could disturb animals, create polluted runoff and drip fuel from inevitable accidents into the water supply. Specific design elements in the company’s plans, which include arches, stream crossings, catch basins and considerable blasting, don’t meet the exacting criteria of the local wetlands ordinance, opponents said.

Letters came in from as far as Buxton, Maine. The conservation board in Buxton, a town on the east shores of the Saco River, urged heightened care by local planners who could decide whether to grant the permit as soon as Wednesday, Oct. 25. The Maine commission asked Tamworth’s planning board to consider carefully that any impact to the region’s water supply could flow far beyond Tamworth.

Despite federal and state approvals on major environmental permits, CMI continues to face stiff resistance in this vigilant town and in several others nearby. Local citizen’s group Focus:Tamworth successfully sued to force the company to re-apply for the local wetlands permit now under review. The Rockingham County Superior Court ruled in December that CMI must apply for and obtain a special use permit under the Tamworth Wetlands Ordinance before it can start construction of its private racetrack on the north slope of Mount Whittier in Tamworth.

The company two years ago announced it didn’t need the permit to cap off a growing collection of federal and state approvals. Most recently, Focus:Tamworth announced it would appeal one of these approvals: a U.S. Army Corps of Engineering environmental permit issued over a year ago.

The group, along with CMI and the Tamworth Conservation Commission, had reserved speaking spots on Tuesday’s public hearing agenda.

“This is not a low intensity use,” Focus:Tamworth lawyer Sherri Young said, lambasting CMI for having “failed utterly to minimize these impacts.”

Gove assured the track’s extensive design work and engineering would head off every conceivable water worry. Arches where sections of track span unbuildable places, a source of erosion concerns for many, can be built to the letter of the law, he said. “We feel we can clearly meet that criteria,” he said.

But some local residents said the company, still at the heart of raging political and legal wars, has yet to prove its good intentions. The town’s voter-approved wetlands ordinance, which CMI once shunned, many said may be the only chance left to regulate wetlands impacts up to high local standards.

Tamworth’s own conservation board voted unanimously to ask planners to reject the application, saying CMI’s technical plans simply do not make the grade. The company has only now come before planners for the local wetlands permit, conservation board chairman John Mersfelder and others charged, because CMI lost to Focus:Tamworth in court.

Former conservation member and current Focus:Tamworth spokesperson Charles Greenhalgh said CMI never intended to earn the permit, and that it has tried to “ram its permitting through.”

The conservation commission’s recommendation against CMI came several weeks ago, even as numerous members who had spoken out against CMI had stepped back under pressure, recusing themselves from voting.

“I am very disappointed with CMI’s recusal request,” said conservation commissioner Donna Veilleux.

Veilleux was asked by CMI to step aside during related talks because she had in the past expressed strong personal opinions against the track. She said, however, she could have easily separated public duty from opinion. She said CMI, which likewise won three recusals on the planning board, has tried to “stack the deck” leading up to the critical vote.

An area lawyer argued CMI has played an “unfair” game with politics that has strained local relationships.

“It has pitted members of the community against each other,” Ken Cargill said.

Voters enacted the wetlands ordinance roughly two decades ago, and amended it in the early 1990s. Now that the ordinance has become a point of conflict, if any want it cleared off the books, or changed, they should again take it to town meeting, Cargill said.

“The ordinance itself is a political animal,” Cargill said. “The political process in New England towns works.”

Jim Alton said, “It’s a good ordinance, the question is whether we’re going to support it or not.”

The assertion, like many others shared over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour evening, drew a round of applause.

CMI president Lloyd Dahmen, however, has said the town regulation was used unfairly by activists seeking only to kill his project. Dahmen, who did not speak publicly Tuesday, has said the ordinance “selectively” targeted CMI’s plans, plans which have consistently irked environmentalists.

He vowed last week to continue working with citizens and officials, and has campaigned to soften the company’s image. CMI has promised to contribute cash to a town fund once it begins turning a profit. Gove and others Tuesday touched briefly on the possibilities of a construction bond and a third-party building inspector — measures that could ensure regulatory compliance and ease fears of fallout.

Debate for years has pitted company opponents against its supporters, who welcome CMI’s promises of jobs and lower taxes. Dave Bowles, a 71-year-old Tamworth native, said he’s “totally in favor of the jobs” and the significant taxes CMI will pay into town coffers.

Bowles, a race fan, said fine-tuned race crews are so adept at mopping up spills, “if you don’t watch it, you might miss it.” He said he expects no pollution problems, only responsible management from CMI.

But Bowles was the only supportive voice raised on the record Tuesday night besides those of Gove and CMI vice president, Jim Hoenshied.

Planners, who continued their meeting to Oct. 25, heard mostly from those with worries. “The location is on a mountainside with an elevation of 500 feet above the lake,” said Bruce Gordon of the Silver Lake Association of Madison. “Many wells in Madison and surrounding towns draw from the aquifer.”

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