Ossipee—April 12, 2022—While Eaton, Freedom, Parsonsfield and Tamworth were exercising their regional abutter rights last week to question the risk posed by the controversial Effingham gas station proposal, Ossipee officials were doubling down on their support for it.
A GovernmentOversight.com video of the Select Board’s March 28 upstairs work session shows board members Susan Simpson and Martha Eldridge discussing the likelihood that a group of people would be attending the board meeting that day to discuss the issue.
With Town Administrator Matt Sawyer looking on, the two reviewed a letter written by Select Board Chairman Johnathan Smith, who was not there, recommending that the board send a letter to Effingham supporting the project, provided that it met “all Federal and State regulations.”
“If the board knows it feels a certain way and is not going to get swayed by pleas that are mostly emotional-based and not legal,” Sawyer said, “you may want to read [Smith’s letter] in advance and limit the time input” of the speakers.
Sawyer then added: “Those people are not going to change their opinions, and John is certainly hoping they’re not going to change your opinions.”
A short while later, downstairs at the start of the Select Board meeting, Sawyer read Smith’s letter aloud. Addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” it began with the statement that “I have done my due diligence…and this project is not in our jurisdiction and we have very limited input on it.”
Nonetheless, Smith’s letter went on to detail eight “reassurances” about the gas station that he said he received from Charlie Krautmann, Oil Compliance Section Supervisor of DES’s Oil Remediation & Compliance Bureau (OCS).
“As you can see this gas station will meet every environmental standard set by DES,” the letter concluded. After Eldridge and Simpson voted to send a support letter to Effingham, the floor was turned over to those who had come to voice their concerns.
The final letter of support, sent to Effingham the next day, stated “Please consider this letter an endorsement of the project, with such conditions as described above.”
For opponents of the plan, especially those living near the site, the town’s endorsement of a controversial commercial business venture in a neighboring town defied simple explanation.
Since October, opponents of the plan had pressed the Select Board to “have the town’s back” on the gas station issue, only to be rebuffed with the same response: It’s an Effingham issue and DES says the plan meets all state requirements. The assumption was that the town planned to sit on the sidelines in the debate.
But that assumption was swept away by the letter endorsing the addition of gas pumps at the currently-shuttered town line convenience store, which is owned by Meena LLC, a Conway business entity.
“What does Ossipee gain by supporting the construction of this gas station in Effingham?”, Ossipee resident Dana Simpson asked in the Carroll County Independent, reminding readers that the March 28 vote to endorse the development was made upstairs at Town Hall while Ossipee residents waited downstairs for a chance to be heard.
Others had the same question. Tammy McPherson is one of two abutting Ossipee property owners who have taken Effingham to court over the decision to approve a variance for a gas station despite it being a prohibited use in the Groundwater Protection District.
In a letter that she asked to be read at the March 28 Select Board meeting because she had to be at work, she said a gas station will make her back yard unusable because of gas fumes and increased truck and car traffic.
“Please speak up for my family and ask [Effingham] if they will pay to test my well water 2x a year,” she wrote. “We all pay taxes and should not be treated like second-class citizens of this town. Please speak up for us.”
Simpson’s and McPherson’s frustrations are shared by others who have attempted to engage the town’s boards on the issue.
At its March 22 meeting, Ossipee’s Conservation Commission heard concerns from Effingham resident Blair Folts and Ossipee residents Rich Fahy and Elizabeth Gillette. Matt Howe, Executive Director of Green Mountain Conservation Group, also attended and urged the commissioners to carefully review the case before rendering an opinion.
The Commission said it would consider the information the group presented and meet with them again at the next meeting. But the same day it wrote a letter to the Select Board saying it had “no objections” to the gas station provided that the plan meets all “safety standards,” echoing Jonathan Smith’s letter.
A Regional Issue
Ossipee resident Tim Otterbach said Effingham’s Development of Regional Impact (DRI) decision makes the gas station an Ossipee environmental issue that deserves more analysis than the town has given it. He explained that while the State regulates tanks and equipment, it has no authority over where a gas station can be located.
Otterbach said above-ground spills and leaks caused by human error are a fact of life in the gas station business despite better equipment and tougher state regulations, which makes the real question whether it’s safe to pump gas in the proposed location, where a major accidental spill is almost certain to infiltrate the aquifer because of its highly transmissive soils.
In his newspaper letter, Ossipee resident Simpson said he documented countless unintentional releases of petroleum in his career as an environmental consultant and was surprised the selectmen followed Chairman Smith’s recommendation to support the gas station despite “the likelihood” of impacts that will put town residents at risk.
“Support of the station was based on State and Federal regulations intended to mitigate a release [of gas] but ignores a local ordinance that was put in place to protect human health and the environment,” he wrote. “Local ordinances look after local interests.”
Ossipee Lake Alliance said it contacted DES’ Charlie Krautmann by email to ask about Select Board Chairman Smith’s statement that the gas station had met “every environmental standard” at DES.
Krautmann said the statement should only have referred to meeting the state’s Env-Or 400 regulations for Underground Storage Tanks, adding the claim that DES had dealt with “the entire project above and below grade” was taken out of context because only local land use boards can rule on the risks associated with a particular location.
“While NHDES has the authority to permit USTs holding gasoline or other petroleum products, our agency has no authority to approve or deny the intended use of a property as a gas station,” he wrote. “That authority rests solely with municipal land use boards.”
Residents living near the property say they will continue opposing the development despite Ossipee’s endorsement.
Abutting property owner McPherson, who is ill with cancer, said that after Ossipee made its announcement she attended Effingham’s Planning Board meeting to ask which town will be paying to test wells for contamination, a cost she says she can’t afford.
“No one in Ossipee has our backs on this issue,” McPherson later said, “but they listened to me in Effingham. I was grateful.”
Billie Lunt owns property on both sides of the town line. She also attended last week’s Effingham Planning Board meeting to ask when the town plans to investigate what happened to the potentially contaminated soils the developer removed last year when he illegally started building the gas station without site plan approval or permits.
“I feel as if Ossipee has sat on the sidelines and let this gas station discussion go on for too long without stepping up to represent the residents of Ossipee who are being impacted by the actions of the Effingham Zoning Board,” she said.