Freedom—November 1, 2021—Here is the Meena (Boyle’s Market) story in a nutshell. The Effingham convenience store (it was abandoned as a gas station in 2015, and its tanks removed) was sold last year to a buyer who wanted to pump gas again. This spring the ZBA unanimously approved his application for a special exception and sent it to the Planning Board.
The Planning Board sent the application back to the ZBA because gas stations are prohibited in the Groundwater Protection District, where the business is located. The applicant asked the ZBA for relief from the restriction, but instead of waiting for approval, he started construction.
Underground tanks and piping were installed before the code enforcement officer noticed the illegal activity and issued a cease-and-desist order. But no fine was assessed, and the tanks were back-filled and stayed in the ground.
In August, the ZBA approved a variance for a gas station despite the site being in the drinking water protection area. Abutters and environmental groups, including ours, appealed the decision as contrary to the ordinance and contrary to the environmental impact data presented at the hearings. The ZBA denied the appeal, and the issue is now in state court. This Thursday, the Planning Board will start reviewing the applicant’s site plan.
There’s a lot to unpack in this case, but most of the public comments we’ve received amount to “So, what’s the big deal?” There used to be a gas station there. New tanks are better than old tanks. Effingham needs the tax revenue, and so forth.
All of which miss the point. While the Meena case features a gas station, it’s not about a gas station. It’s about the water.
More than a decade ago, volunteers in Effingham, Ossipee and Freedom worked tirelessly to create public awareness of the term “stratified drift aquifer” and secure protections for the drinking water it provides to seven towns in our region, where up to 80% of homes rely on private wells.
In 2011, Effingham voters approved a Groundwater Protection Ordinance and established a Groundwater Protection District, an area in which the fragility of the aquifer requires that water protection be prioritized over land uses that might be permitted elsewhere. The former Boyle’s property is in that district, and gas stations are among the uses prohibited there.
But it’s not just gas stations. Property owners in the Groundwater Protection District are prohibited from starting a solid waste landfill, a dry-cleaning facility, a race track, a junkyard and other land uses that pose a high risk of spills and leaks of toxic material that can find their way into the groundwater and be spread far and wide by the highly transmissive aquifer.
If you think fears of contamination are far-fetched, consider the currently unoccupied site over the aquifer at the junction of Routes 16 and 41 in West Ossipee. Home to a series of oil- and gas-related businesses, the site tested positive in the 1990s for a plume of groundwater contaminated by gasoline byproducts. To this day, the site is unremediated, and annual tests are required for neighboring property owners to be sure their well water is safe to drink.
How about the argument that today’s underground gas tanks are “fail-proof”? In addition to “fail-proof” being a nonsense marketing term, underground tanks are only part of the potential threat. Spills and accidents at gas pump islands are a routine hazard of the business that can result in groundwater contamination. The DES OneStop database lists nine Carroll County gas station incidents in which more than ten gallons of fuel were spilled, including a 2020 spill in Bartlett that released 45 gallons.
As we said earlier, there’s a lot to unpack in the ZBA’s actions in this matter. How could the board have approved the gas station application in March without a single mention of the long-standing groundwater protection ordinance that at least two current ZBA members helped establish?
Once the omission was revealed by the Planning Board, what was the ZBA’s reasoning in denying regional impact status for an application requesting a prohibited, risky use on the border of Ossipee, in a highly transmissible section of the aquifer adjacent to conservation land, residential wells, Phillips Brook, and Leavitt Bay, which is bordered by three towns?
Despite the gravity of what the applicant was requesting—relief from a major town environmental regulation approved by voters—why did the ZBA fail to seek an independent third-party review of the application to help determine its completeness and potential environmental impact?
We don’t know the answers to these questions, but we do know that the Meena case is not really just about a gas station. It’s about water. Which means it’s about all of us who count on town officials to uphold established, voter-approved environmental protections for the Ossipee Aquifer, the irreplaceable primary source of drinking water for the region.
That’s our opinion. The Planning Board meetings on the gas station are where you can make your opinion heard. They start this Thursday, November 4, at 6:30 p.m. in Effingham Town Hall.