Effingham—February 20, 2022—The Effingham Planning Board’s review of Meena LLC’s controversial gas station site plan application will continue with a public hearing on Thursday night, February 24, at 6:30 p.m. in Town Hall.
But before the hearing starts, the board is likely to be asked about what appears to have been a procedural omission at its previous meeting, on February 3.
As reported by Ossipee Lake Alliance, the board failed to make a determination about the proposal’s potential regional impact before it ruled the application was administratively complete and hearings could commence.
RSAs 36:54-58, established in 1992, require land use boards to make a “prompt” determination about whether an application is a Development of Regional Impact (DRI) prior to ruling on completeness.
The Alliance article reported that the gas station application appears to meet at least two of the DRI criteria, including proximity to the borders of a neighboring community and proximity to aquifers or surface waters that transcend municipal boundaries.
The statutes state that “if there is doubt about a project’s potential to have regional impacts, the local land use board must determine that the development has a potential impact,” according to the New Hampshire Municipal Association.
A DRI designation would require the potentially affected neighboring communities and the Lakes Region Planning Commission to be notified within five days, and it would mandate a 14-day waiting period between the DRI designation and public hearings.
Subsequent to the February 3 meeting, the town received letters of concern about the development from residents of Ossipee, Freedom and Tamworth, as well as from the Town of Porter, Maine, all of which cited the potential threat to drinking water.
The planning board was alerted to the DRI requirement prior to its February 3 meeting in letters from attorneys representing parties in the matter.
In a January 28 letter, Attorney Biron Bedard, who represents a group appealing last year’s ZBA approval of a variance for the development, noted the site’s location on the Effingham-Ossipee town line, and said Ossipee abutters and other Ossipee residents in close proximity “may be affected by groundwater contamination, increased traffic, fumes and light pollution.”
The letter was not discussed at the February 3 meeting.
Neither was a second letter referencing DRI status. It was emailed to the board on February 2 by Attorney Matthew Johnson, whose client, Meena LLC’s principal, Pankaj “Prince” Garg, has status as an intervenor in the matter.
Responding to Attorney Bedard’s letter, Johnson wrote “there is no basis to seek a regional impact analysis for this project,” calling Bedard’s argument “classic bootstrapping.”
The attorneys also differed on the issue of whether board chair Theresa Swanick should recuse herself from the planning board’s deliberations on the site plan application.
In his letter to the board, Bedard noted that Swanick chaired the ZBA when it approved the variance that granted relief from the Groundwater Protection Ordinance’s prohibition against a gas station on Garg’s property.
“Her votes at the ZBA clearly establish that she is predisposed favorably to this [site plan] application…and pose a conflict of interests,” he wrote.
“As a result, she should recuse herself from all decisions regarding Meena’s site plan review application to help ensure a fair and impartial process,” he concluded.
In response, Garg’s attorney characterized Bedard’s request as an “apparent bullying effort,” adding that “We are aware of no objective facts that would support such a recusal process.”
A request to Effingham Town Counsel Matthew Serge to comment on the two letters was not answered.
Those unable to attend the February 24 meeting may request a Zoom link by sending a request to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 5:30 p.m. the day before the meeting. Comments about the development may also be sent to that address.