July 26, 2021
On Thursday, Effingham’s ZBA will meet and likely rule on whether the new owner of Boyle’s Family Market on Route 25 should be permitted to open and operate a gas station at the site, which is adjacent to Phillips Brook, an Ossipee Lake tributary.
This is the background: A Conway businessman purchased the store this year with the intent of restoring the gas station that operated there until six years ago when the then-owner decommissioned it and worked with the state to remove the tanks, pumps and equipment.
The new owner hired a mainly-local team of experts in gas station construction and the regulations that pertain thereto. The team of experts sought guidance from the local zoning authority, presented their case, and were granted approval, subject to planning board review.
Instead of waiting for the planning board, one of the hired experts authorized the contractor to install the tanks in order to start pumping sooner rather than later. At around the same time, the planning board noted a problem with the application and sent it back to the ZBA.
The problem was material. Effingham’s Groundwater Protection District was established by voters a decade ago and amended to zoning. Land uses permitted by right or allowed by special exception elsewhere in town are also permitted in the Groundwater Protection District—unless they are specifically prohibited. Article 22, Section 2207-A (8) of the zoning ordinance prohibits gas stations in the groundwater district, and Boyle’s Family Market is within that district.
We all make mistakes, but the apparent errors in this matter are serious.
For some reason, Effingham’s zoning officials—some of whom fought for the Article 22 protections years ago—reviewed and approved the application despite the fact that the ordinance specifically precludes consideration of applications for gas stations in the Groundwater Protection District.
Similarly, the business owner and his experts—who have years of experience in the highly-regulated world of gas stations—apparently failed to see, or understand, that Article 22, Section 2207-A (8) of the zoning ordinance specifically prohibits a new gas station at the proposed site. Then they complicated matters by installing the tanks before the town could complete its review.
At last week’s ZBA meeting there was finger-pointing about who should have known what, and when. But if we’re correct in our interpretation of the ordinance, the upshot appears to be that both parties inexplicably missed the big picture.
This is surprising, to say the least. Environmental volunteers from Effingham and the surrounding towns that rely on drinking water from the Ossipee Aquifer spent years educating the public about the importance of protecting the water source. Then they spent years more securing majority voter support for rigid, specific groundwater protections in local zoning, such as Effingham’s Groundwater Protection Ordinance’s prohibition against gas stations, adopted a decade ago.
Some of those environmental volunteers serve in Effingham’s town government, others are regular citizens, and still others reside in adjacent towns. All of them—and the rest of us—will be affected if the ZBA allows the protections embodied in the town’s Groundwater Protection Ordinance to be tweaked or set aside simply because the town and the applicant apparently both made errors. The consequences of that kind of precedent would ripple well beyond Effingham.
It will be a bitter pill for the principals to swallow, but we believe the right decision is for the ZBA to deny the application, consistent with the terms of the ordinance, and for the applicant to accept that a gas station cannot be approved at that site, no matter how “fail-proof” it is claimed to be.
We sympathize with the difficulties the parties face in this matter, but residents of the six towns that rely on the aquifer for their drinking water are counting on them to do the right thing.
Board of Directors
Ossipee Lake Alliance