The following op-ed by Ossipee Lake Alliance co-founder David Smith was published by the Carroll County Independent on May 4 as a guest commentary.
As the result of a court order, Ossipee’s ZBA on May 9 will finally provide a public forum for Freedom to make its case that the Ossipee Planning Board violated zoning when it voted 5-2 to approve the Westward Shores expansion. The expansion plan is controversial because the entire campground is on the floodplain, an issue the developer has tried to downplay. It’s also controversial because the developer plans to double the number of camping sites, something that was ruled to have regional, not just local, impact.
That ruling opened the door for comments by the Saco River Corridor Commission, which reminded officials that the purpose of floodplains is to provide storage areas that can buffer the land against the ravages of water when it exceeds its boundaries. Stated another way, accommodating human activities should always be secondary to a floodplain’s primary environmental job.
But the Commission went further by suggesting that sometimes just because something can be legally approved, doesn’t mean it should be approved. In essence, town officials would be wise to consider not just the letter of the law, but whether the expansion’s risks and benefits connect to a public interest.
“As regulators of land use, we are constantly told that if only a little common sense would be allowed in the equation there would be no need for so many regulations,” the Commission wrote to Ossipee. “We hope that the many issues surrounding the placement of this campground would give pause for concern for water quality, for destruction of property, and the potential for threats to public health and safety.”
Jones & Beach, the engineering firm advising Ossipee on the expansion, similarly cautioned the Planning Board in regard to flooding. In its July 10 assessment of the plan, the firm wrote “We share the concern expressed by the Planning Board and the public that the entire Campground is located in the 100-Year FEMA Flood Zone.” On August 22 it reiterated that concern, writing that the Planning Board “must be comfortable” in its understanding of the flooding issue.
After the developer pushed back, saying it would meet FEMA regulations and that five of its nine campgrounds operate on floodplains “without negative consequences,” Jones & Beach cautioned Ossipee a third time, writing on September 6 that “We understand the [developer’s] response, however the Planning Board must be comfortable” in knowing that the campground is entirely on the floodplain.
Two weeks later, the Planning Board signed off, ruling that the expansion application had satisfied all local legal requirements. Freedom believes the decision is contrary to town zoning and has taken Ossipee to court. But our disappointment with Ossipee goes beyond the legal issues. By granting all of the benefits to the developer and assigning all of the risks to the public, the Planning Board failed the lake community. For many on the lake, the Board’s acceptance of the developer’s wishful thinking on the topic of flooding was a failure to exercise common sense.
No one knows how this will play out, but the flooding issue is now plain to see, thanks to pictures posted in the Independent last week, and research validating that the lake floods at a level a foot lower than the previous benchmark.
Freedom’s case will be front and center at the ZBA hearing on May 9, and we are persuaded by their legal arguments. But could this also be an opportunity for Ossipee officials to apply some common sense and reconsider the scope of the expansion in light of the published pictures?
Consider this: If Westward Shores were undeveloped floodplain land and a new owner came to town with a plan to build a major business there, consisting of 519 sites for camping vehicles served by septic systems and ancillary buildings, would anyone think that was a reasonable idea and good for the lake? Even if a way could be found to make it legal?