CMI’s Projected Smooth Road Scarred by Potholes

Tamworth — December 27, 2006 — It was of little surprise last month when Club Motorsports Inc. turned its legal machine on Tamworth and sued the town for denying it building rights amidst an ongoing dogfight with environmentalists.

But now, looking back three years, the reeling racetrack developer seems further than ever from an early promise to investors to succeed where other would-be track builders have failed: on the ground in a local public relations campaign.

In a 2003 mailing sending out feelers for capital to finance its now massively controversial driving club, CMI promised a comprehensive plan to smoothly strike gold. Its team of driving aficionados and experts was bigger, better and more understanding of New Hampshire politics than past losers, was its pledge to potential investors.

But since demonstrating a mastery of state-level politicking, revealed as the company notched major wins in the legislature, the local horizon remains shades darker. The town planning board, finding the envisioned track would damage too many wetlands, last month denied a critical local permit. CMI, already under steady legal fire itself from activists, sued the town apparently for the first time, criticizing officials and blasting its dogged critics.

Seamlessly, with the suit raging, CMI returns Wednesday at 7 p.m. for another shot before planners at a scaled back bid for permission to build an access road.

The three-year-old sunshine-forecasting capital brochure, obtained by The Conway Daily Sun, reveals some of why CMI picked this small political community, and how it may have overestimated its ability to entirely win it over.

The FAQ sheet to “interested investors” boasts of the expertise and public relations savvy of the early company management team. That crop has since been turned over to exclude the brash founding entrepreneur, who infuriated local track opponents who felt he mocked their democratic process.

It was then-CEO Stephan Condodemetracky who led CMI when it enraged a section of the populace by heading to the state legislature to avoid a local law crafted to regulate the huge project. Since, even with a new gentler public face, and a new president promising to donate thousands to a town slush fund, it has been much turmoil and legal fighting.

Current president and CEO Lloyd Dahmen declined to comment for this article. But he and company officials have repeatedly cited powerful citizens’ group, Focus: Tamworth, calling the local environmental watchdogs a blockade to development.

“All politics is local. This is especially true in New Hampshire,” reads a section of the investors’ pamphlet explaining how the company, in 2003 before Dahmen took the helm, planned to develop a “core of support.”

CMI has a core of support in town, but its core of opponents has seemingly been better organized, well-funded and louder. And those opponents have been mad.

“The failure of several efforts to build tracks in New England has stemmed directly from the impolitic approach of others to the permitting and public relations process,” read the brochure, as if it was written about the Derry developers and their well-publicized permit battles, not by them.

The statements conjure scenes in recent years of a statehouse packed with furious opponents who made the hour-and-a-half drive to protest reputed deal-making with state politicians. The anti-CMI crowd, flanked by Focus: Tamworth’s own lawyers, lost though, and CMI’s successfully lobbied exemption from a local racetrack rule remained.

The CMI brochure had promised it would lay “the appropriate political groundwork in New Hampshire at the local and state level.” It also said CMI selected Tamworth because the tiny haven has no zoning laws. Tamworth had even repeatedly rejected highly controversial efforts by some to install them, the company has professed of its preferred locale.

“As a result CMI’s project does not require a building permit,” or a “site plan review” the investors’ guide read.

Zoning, a set of ordinances that can restrict certain kinds of development and activity in some areas and promote growth in others, has been the focal point of a long-running dispute here. Tamworth still has no zoning, and many are adamant that it stays that way. It was such that CMI tapped into an active disagreement when it came town.

The company’s dire warning to itself that it must strive to head off a “radical measure that essentially stops all non-residential development” rings eerily true. A groundswell tried, but failed, to pass the referred-to “emergency temporary zoning,” which CMI predicted to investors, apparently accurately, could bring civil catastrophe.

“This is a drastic measure that can result in severe and long lasting divisions within a town. It is CMI’s intent to develop a substantial core of support for CMI within the community, region and state that will minimize EZO threat,” the brochure read.

But the town did split sharply over the emergency zoning vote, and continued its long-standing tradition of squabbling bitterly over zoning. The divisions remain, and have been further fueled and complicated by the company’s recent decision to sue.

Indeed, the brochure highlighted the current wetlands permitting hurdle that threatens to send more of its public relations work crumbling. CMI finally filed legal papers against the town planning board after the board rejected its application last month for a “special use” permit under the Tamworth Wetlands Ordinance.

When the planning board, in local waters riled by mistrust, ruled 5-1 against CMI, the company sued for its livelihood. Without the permit, a judge in a civil suit had earlier ruled, CMI can’t build as it hoped on forested Mount Whittier.

CMI has also appealed that judge’s ruling, which came by way of a private suit filed by Focus. Some call the group the town’s protectors. Focus has stepped up with a loud voice and legal dollars to fight for the environment and enforce local rules where past selectmen have not.

Others in the torn citizenry, however, condemn Focus as arrogant, too resistant to change, and caring little for the good jobs CMI could bring to a struggling workforce. Either way, taxpayers are now footing more of the bill.

Meanwhile, with the future unclear, CMI will return to the planning board Wednesday to ask for permission to build just an access road up the mountain. The same officials CMI called “hopelessly confused” in the lawsuit, which also questioned the officials’ independence, could again rule on the company’s application.

But others might as well, as CMI has also challenged the appointment of some of the officials. The company had forced recusals from several planners it said were biased. But it complained in the suit that it was uncertain whether even the replacements were fair-minded.

Dahmen has said only that CMI seeks fair “access” to its uplands. But he has not specified what CMI will do if it gets there without a comprehensive building permission.

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