Ossipee—December 15, 2016—The Ossipee Planning Board heard the promise of a $10,000 gift and grabbed it. Almost. A vote was taken at their Dec. 6 meeting to accept the offer of Dan Hole Pond Watershed Trust to develop a build-out study for the town. After Rep. Ed Comeau (R-Brookfield) stepped forward and questioned their authority to accept gifts without a public hearing, the board reversed its support and decided to send the offer to the selectmen.
A build-out study is touted by advocates as a useful planning tool that maps current development, projects future growth and shows what the town will look like once it’s completely built out. A petition was presented last winter to get a build-out study on the Town Meeting warrant. The article asked for taxpayers to shell out $3,000 for the study with an additional $3,000 coming from the conservation commission’s savings account and a $4,000 N.H. Department of Environmental Services grant. After a lengthy discussion, swayed by comments from Ossipee Selectman Rickard Morgan, the article failed.
In a letter dated Dec. 5, 2016 Dan Hole Watershed Trust made an offer to the Ossipee Planning Board. That group is willing to do seek donors to fund the $6,000 match to the DES $4,000 grant, with no money being raised through town tax dollars. The group suggested the town form an “informal oversight committee” to work with the Trust’s pre-selected engineering firm, FB Environmental of Portsmouth, to “understand and refine the assumptions and data that go into this study.”
The Trust letter states that their group is an “Ossipee-based land trust whose main purpose is the conservation of forestland in the Dan Hole Pond watershed.” Their interest in the build-out study, they cite, is to understand what Ossipee will look like if fully developed under the town’s current zoning, to plan for issues that might arise due to development, and to “help identify new opportunities for commercial development while preserving Ossipee’s rural character that our visitors and residents appreciate.”
Planning board member Bob Gillette, whose wife Elizabeth sits on the Trust board, brought the offer to the planning board and convinced his fellow members that the study is considered a best-practice in gathering data as the board works to update the town’s overall Master Plan. In an email, Gillette said, “Unfortunately, at our last Town meeting, funding for such a study was turned down. Now a public–spirited Ossipee group that cares about good town planning is willing to raise the funds itself and get it done. They also invited members of Ossipee’s land-use or other boards to work with the contractor to maximize its usefulness.”
Back at the March 9 town meeting, Ossipee Conservation Commission Chairman Ron Adams, who also sits on the Trust board, said that based on the growth patterns of the past, at some point the town will be totally built out and that the conservation commission believes a build-out study is a very valuable planning tool. He told attendees that for example, it is his understanding, that once Ossipee Aggregates is finished mining gravel on their vast acreage of Ossipee land, the plan is to turn it into a mix of residential and commercial. It is projects like this, he said, and those that affect Ossipee Lake shorefront that make it especially important to plan for future growth.
In response, Morgan said at Town Meeting that his main concern is the conservation lean that such a study will take on. “I felt and continue to feel that conservation groups like Green Mountain Conservation Group are going to use this tool to influence our development, our commercial development, our residential development. And we already have thousands of acres under conservation easement. I really feel that if we support this we are buying the ammunition for these people to shoot us with,” said Morgan.
Likely because of its contentious nature, a call for a secret ballot was honored by the moderator. In the end, the article failed
At the Dec. 6 planning board meeting, member Roy Barron said shortly after the March 9 town meeting the planning board voted not to bring up the build-out study discussion again because, he said, Ossipee voters spoke and don’t want it. In turn, Dec. 6 members voted to overturn the vote thus allowing them to talk about it.
Next, they voted 4-2 with Chairman Ski Kwiatkowski, Gillette, Dennis Legendre and Bruce Parsons in favor of accepting the Trust offer while Connie Billings and Barron voted against it. Then Comeau stepped forward. He questioned the board’s ability to accept gifts or donations and asked the board to consider whether they lawfully have a right to do so or if this power rests with selectmen. Lengthy discussion followed.
Legendre said, “You touched on something that hit home. I see the need for a build-out study I think it would help the town down the road. I don’t want any strings attached to it. I’m very uncomfortable because I would much rather go with what the people have to say. If we can’t do that, we’re not being transparent. I think we need to send a letter to selectmen, have an open forum to discuss it and then vote.”
The six-member planning board then chose to reconsider their build-out study support vote, overturning it 3-2 with Gillette and Kwiatkowski voting against reconsideration and Billings, Barron, and Legendre voting in favor. The sixth member, Bruce Parsons decided this time around to abstain despite prodding from Gillette to cast a vote. “I don’t give a damn one way or another,” said Parsons.
In a follow-up email, Gillette said he consulted with N.H. Municipal Association to get their take on the law. “I’m sure Ed’s (Comeau) intervention was well-intentioned, but he was wrong on two counts: First, RSA 673:16 allows a Planning Board to ‘accept and use gifts, grants or contributions for the exercise of its functions,’ in accordance with a town’s procedures for expending funds. Second, no ‘gift’ was being offered. The Ossipee group in question was proposing to collect private donations and contract directly for the study as a civic gesture. The study would be available to the general public, not just the Town of Ossipee. So it would be no different from any other useful information we might find in the public domain for updating our Master Plan, on the Internet, or elsewhere. In a letter to the Planning Board, they were simply looking for assurance that we would carefully consider the results of this study. Why wouldn’t we, if it were well done?” Gillette said.
Comeau also had a response. “The Town voted down a warrant article related to this build out study during the Town meeting. The expenditure of funds was not the only reason discussed by the public. To present the same study now as a donation without any hearing about the details of this donation is not transparent. Neither the public or the planning board members know the details of the grant application between the state and FB Environmental. Neither the public or the Board know the details or the intentions of the people donating the balance of the funds to have the study completed. Is it related to water quality or future land use regulations?
“It was introduced by letter to the Ossipee Planning Board and neither the Dan Hole Pond Water Shed Trust or FB Environmental attended. Josh Arnold of Global Awareness Local Action was the only public attendee.
“The other issue is that this build out study will have long term effects in the town as it will become part of the Master Plan. A hearing on this study should be part of the public involvement in updating the Master Plan. If the town voted down a warrant article related to this study, the act of Gillette bringing a donation to do this study without any hearings with the public is underhanded. It flies in the face of the intent of the voters and frankly is the one of the reasons why the public is disgusted with government,” Comeau said.
Morgan said at the Dec. 12 selectmen’s meeting that there will be an advertised public hearing to give people the opportunity to get details and voice their opinions. “The problem that I think some people don’t want to grasp is when you are talking about taxpayer money and taxpayer issues and building issues the appearance of impropriety is just as damaging as impropriety itself. If there is a full hearing and people get the opportunity to ask those questions and then this board agrees to accept it (the build-out study) then fantastic. But until that happens, that is the process that needs to be done.”
The planning board meets next at the Freight House on Moultonville Road Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. and there is an open public comment period at every meeting. As for the selectmen’s public hearing on the build-out study, a date has not been set.