Freedom—December 29, 2016—Westward Shores Campground was at the center of the lake news in 2016, just as it was in 2009, for different reasons. Back then, the business made headlines when it filed for bankruptcy protection under its colorful but controversial owner, Charlie Smith.
In the spring of that year, Smith informed returning campers that he would be selling his campsites as condo units. To lock in a discounted introductory price, they needed to sign a purchase intent agreement by June 1 and make a $500 deposit. Those not interested were left in the dark about what would happen after June 1.
Campers were furious, but even if the response had been positive, Smith didn’t have the approvals he needed for the conversion. Plus, he had financial troubles, and his creditors had already quietly foreclosed on the property and advertised it for sale at a Boston area auction.
Few campers shed tears when Smith filed for bankruptcy protection. Once a well-managed summer destination for families with tents and pop-up campers, Westward Shores had deteriorated into something else. Posting online, campers cited poor maintenance, staff inattention, limited activities, high prices, standing pools of water after floods, and fears that the septic system was leaking.
All of which is to say that because Westward Shores has known hard times in past years, the bar for improving the business wasn’t set very high when Northgate Resorts of Michigan bought it a year ago. Northgate said it would spend “millions” and use its operating expertise to upgrade the property and bring new jobs and revenue to Ossipee. All of which sounded good except for the part about doubling capacity from 258 to 504 camping sites.
For some in the area, us included, a major expansion of a people-intensive business on a floodplain next to an aquifer recharge area on a lake prone to flooding seemed a dubious proposition, and still does. But such a plan can be permissible. Ossipee’s FEMA-based floodplain ordinance singles out floodplains as suitable locations for campgrounds provided that specific environmental protections are put in place.
And therein lies the Westward Shores story for 2016. In September, Ossipee’s Planning Board ruled that Northgate’s expansion plan meets all town legal requirements and provides sufficient environmental safeguards. The Board attached a single condition to its approval: that Northgate obtain any additional required state permits.
Across the lake, Freedom and Effingham disagreed. They saw a plan with gaps that were insufficiently closed. They reasoned Ossipee’s approval should have had a different contingency: that Northgate be required to provide all of the environmental protections mandated by the town’s zoning ordinance. After unsuccessfully appealing Ossipee’s decision, Freedom took Ossipee to court.
A Bumpy Road
A lawsuit between otherwise friendly towns sharing a beloved asset is fairly rare in these parts. So, how did things get to this point? Certainly the process leading up to Ossipee’s decision had a lot to do with it.
From the start, the expansion was tainted by a swirl of misinformation as reported by the two local newspapers. One found that Northgate’s engineers were painting a rosy picture of meetings with environmental groups that never occurred, or didn’t occur as claimed, and implying agreements about environmental issues where there were none. Northgate responded by having its attorney publicly blame the Planning Board for publishing incomplete meeting minutes.
Then there was the flooding interview. Northgate’s CEO alleged to a reporter that opponents of the expansion had “overblown” concerns about flooding. Previous floods, he said, were due to poor dam management, and flooding threats had ceased entirely after changes were made in 1999. Local hobbyists and state officials who track water levels cried foul. The actual data shows the lake was at or above the 410′ level (the campground’s elevation) on at least 43 occasions between 2000 and the end of 2015. Presumably resulting in flooding.
To its credit, the Ossipee Planning Board brought order to the deteriorating process by hiring an engineering firm to independently review the expansion plan’s ability to meet town laws. But the new consultants’ findings simply confirmed to the expansion’s critics that the plan had environmental gaps that were not being closed. In August, the Town of Freedom publicly said the plan poses “a significant risk” to water quality.
A Missed Opportunity
By September, a number of things were clear. Towns generally defer to one another in regard to planning and zoning matters. But here was one town, Freedom, publicly skeptical that Northgate could provide the environmental safeguards that the laws of another town, Ossipee, require. Effingham soon joined Freedom in opposing the expansion plan.
Second, while public comments at Planning Board meetings occasionally focused on economic benefits, most echoed the concerns of Freedom and Effingham about the plan’s environmental risks. Moreover, the Planning Board’s credibility took a hit after one of its members publicly disparaged individuals expressing such concerns at Board meetings by accusing them of “fear mongering.”
Meanwhile, local and regional environmental leaders went from concerned to opposed, even downriver. Maine’s Saco River Corridor Commission felt compelled to write to Ossipee: “As regulators of land, we are constantly told that if only a little common sense would be allowed, there would be no need for so many regulations.” The letter went to say that placing more RVs and manufactured homes on a floodplain “simply makes no sense.”
Faced with little public support and lots of concerns, this might have been a good time for Ossipee to pause for a moment. Freedom provided that opportunity when the head of its Planning Board appeared at the September 20 Ossipee Planning Board meeting and asked for two things: additional time to review a newly submitted report by the independent engineering firm, and an opportunity to make a presentation to the Board about why Freedom opposed the plan.
Memorably, Ossipee said “no,” as reported by the Carroll County Independent:
“I understand your concerns, but this is the Town of Ossipee,” said an Ossipee Planning Board member to the head of Freedom’s Planning Board. “I was elected by the people of Ossipee. I’m supposed to look out for their interests. Their interest supersedes anything you might have to say.” After which Ossipee signed off on the expansion.
Freedom appealed the decision to the Planning Board and to the Zoning Board of Adjustment but got nowhere. So, what began optimistically in January as a possible new path for an old business ended ugly in December, with the plan on hold and two towns headed to court, where Ossipee will have to defend its decision.
Donald Lee Again
Given the glacial pace of justice in the Granite State, it might take a bit of time for Freedom vs. Ossipee to be resolved. Consider, for example, the Donald Lee case, which has been kicking around since Ronald Reagan was president. It briefly popped into view this year after Lee’s property was offered at auction to help defray the cost of remediating his environmental damage to the lake. It didn’t sell, but the clean up is moving forward anyhow because Ossipee Bluffs Association is paying the bill (as it has been repeatedly forced to do for 28 years.) New to the Donald Lee case? Use the search box on this page and settle in for the rest of the day.
Frankly, My Dear…
Then there’s the Ossipee Build-Out Study. A build-out study gathers facts and crunches data to make projections that can help town planners make smart decisions about growing their community while ensuring it remains a great place to live. It’s a common planning tool.
About a year ago, Ossipee Conservation Commission and Green Mountain Conservation Group asked the Ossipee Selectmen for funds to support such a study, and the Board responded with something along the lines of ‘no’ and ‘don’t ask us again.’ As it turns out, the Board is still sore that GMCG opposed the town’s plan to construct a public beach in Ossipee Lake Natural Area more than a decade ago (something the state, which owns the property, also thought was a terrible idea).
The Conservation Commission uncoupled GMCG from the study and brought the proposal back to the Selectmen in January. After belittling GMCG some more, the Board went on to say they didn’t trust that the results of such a survey would be used “in the best interests” of the town. Oddly, one of the selectmen underscored his opposition by citing an example of a successful study that is helping neighboring Freedom reduce the threat of pollution to the lake. As reported by the Independent:
“Morgan said he read the build-out survey that was done for the town of Freedom. Ultimately he said, it’s all about the concern over phosphorous levels in Lake Ossipee, and how to prevent them through building code restrictions for example. Because Ossipee is built in the hills and all of its runoff ends up in the lake, he predicted detrimental restrictions could be forthcoming for the town.”
The Select Board’s opposition helped defeat the study when it was finally put to voters in a secret ballot at Town Meeting. But this month, the Conservation Commission pitched it to the Planning Board as a fully funded gift to the town from the local non-profit organization Dan Hole Watershed Trust. The Planning Board voted 4-2 to accept the offer but demurred when it was questioned whether they had the authority to accept a gift without a public hearing. So the Board reversed itself, voting 3-2, with 1 abstention, to turn down the offer.
Asked about his abstaining vote, Board member Bruce Parsons, said: “I don’t give a damn one way or the other,” according to a newspaper account.
Natural Area’s Recovery Continues
Ossipee’s Select Board may still be fuming about not having a beach in Ossipee Lake Natural Area, but DRED is elated that its 2009 management plan for the property is continuing to pay off. At a November meeting of the Natural Area Working Group, the state reported that the populations of rare and threatened plant species at Long Sands and Short Sands are healthy and stable. Moreover, one of the populations at Long Sands has “increased dramatically” since the annual installation of a fence to protect it. An article on this and other results of the meeting will be forthcoming.
Farewells and Thanks
This year we lost two friends of the lake who were also members of the Alliance family. Paul Clausen and Ian Marshall were brothers-in-law to Alliance founder Susan Marks, and Clausen was the husband of Alliance board member Roberta MacCarthy. The two men loved the lake, and the Berry Bay community loved them in return.
We also said farewell this year to Jed Z. Callen. No, the Concord attorney didn’t pass away, he retired. Jed worked for years (and years) to help Ossipee Bluffs Association obtain justice from an adversarial neighbor who knew how to game the system, and a gaggle of hapless state agencies that let him get away with it. The Donald Lee case lives on, but Jed has gone fishing. We thank him and salute him for his work on behalf of the lake.
Our thanks also go to Bob Smart. For 12 years, his Smart Report has kept people on and off the lake up to date about everything from the water level to snowfall totals to the location of the worst frost heaves on the drive to Conway. This month we also welcome Dave Eastman, an old friend of the Alliance whose “Country Ecology” columns will be seen on our website from time to time in the coming year. Good to have Dave back.
To those of you who volunteer locally, whether for our work or the work of other organizations concerned with the lake, our sincere thanks for your time or your financial support or both. You are part of the growing Ossipee Lake Community of Interest, a coalition that is making a difference. Future property owners and visitors will thank you, just as we do.
Whether you’re on the lake as you read this, or far from it, a very Happy New Year from everyone at Ossipee Lake Alliance.