The following op-ed appeared in the May 5 edition of the Carroll County Independent, written by David Smith, co-founder of Ossipee Lake Alliance.
When the proposed Meena LLC gas station on the town line between Ossipee and Effingham was ruled a Development of Regional Impact because of its proximity to the Ossipee Aquifer, eight towns were granted abutter status in the matter. Since then, six have publicly expressed opinions about the plan ranging from strong concerns to opposition.
Freedom officials called the former gravel pit site “problematic,” the stormwater management plan “inadequate,” and the potential negative impact on public health “too high.” Tamworth officials called on Effingham to “respect its groundwater protection ordinance” by denying the application, and Eaton officials noted that the company preparing the site plan lacked the required credentials.
In contrast, Ossipee’s Select Board endorsed the development, citing “reassurances” by DES that the tanks and pump safety protocols will meet all state requirements—something that has never been in doubt and is beside the point. The issue in the Meena LLC case is the level of risk created by the highly permeable soils at the site; a risk that must be assessed locally, not by the state.
“What does Ossipee gain by supporting the construction of this gas station in Effingham?” asked long-time Ossipee resident Dana Simpson, whose newspaper letter referenced his career overseeing clean-ups of unexpected, but inevitable, petroleum leaks and spills.
Ossipee residents living near the Meena LLC site have wondered the same thing. They say Effingham will reap the development’s economic benefits on the backs of Ossipee taxpayers.
The Ossipee Select Board’s decision to endorse a risky business enterprise in a neighboring town contrary to the interests of its own town’s abutters offers abundant opportunity for speculation, but sadly it’s not a surprise. Despite being the first town in our area to make groundwater protection part of its zoning—33 years ago—it has a disappointing track record in standing firm on those protections when presented with high-risk environmental cases.
Consider 2015’s application for a variance by Four Long Pond Realty Trust to build an eight-pump gas station and 5,000 square foot convenience store in Ossipee on the town line with Tamworth. The property, which is highly contaminated from previous uses, sits above the aquifer in the town’s Water Resource Protection District, where gas stations are prohibited. At the time, it was also in the 22nd year of a DES monitoring plan to track an underground “plume” of contaminants that threatened neighboring wells.
Nonetheless, the ZBA voted 4-1 to grant a variance for the development. At the same time, it authorized the applicant to excavate the site to install underground tanks despite warnings that the construction could cause the plume of contaminants to migrate to the aquifer.
Conservation groups decried the decision—as did Mark McConkey, contractor, gas station owner, State Representative, and the agent for Meena LLC’s current application to build a gas station in Effingham’s Groundwater Protection District, where town zoning prohibits gas stations.
Writing on behalf of Whittier Coalition LLC, McConkey’s six-page appeal argued that Four Long Pond Realty Trust had not met the “five-point test” for a variance, and repeatedly pointed to the prohibition against gas stations in Ossipee’s Water Resource Protection District.
“The new owner purchased the property aware of the zoning ordinance and should adhere to those standards if they wish to be a Conscientious Steward of the environment and conduct business in the district,” he wrote. The appeal was denied for not meeting the filing deadline.
Extensive Planning Board hearings ensued, including one in which board member Rick St. James abruptly walked out of a presentation about the development’s potential environmental impact, saying “More trash, lies, misrepresentations and waste of our tax dollars,” according to a newspaper report. The property owner eventually abandoned the gas station idea despite receiving a zoning variance and site plan approval from the town.
Consider also the Westward Shores story. The down-on-its luck Ossipee Lake campground was purchased in late 2015 by Michigan-based Northgate Resorts, which planned to increase its capacity from 228 campsites to 522.
Opposition was swift, since the business is on a 308-acre floodplain that floods regularly, and the expansion was viewed as increasing the already sizable risk that floodwaters could overwhelm the septic system and contaminate the lake, among other issues. The plan was ruled to have Regional Impact, and Freedom and Effingham were named abutters.
In May, 2016, Ossipee’s ZBA granted a variance to build a narrower-than-required access road along the shoreline despite public objections and a news story in the Carroll County Independent citing inconsistencies in information the applicant had submitted to the town. Members of the public at the meeting asked to discuss the inconsistencies before the ZBA voted on the variance, but were turned down.
July’s Planning Board hearings created a platform for the public’s concerns about the flooding issue, and a September report by an independent engineering firm put flooding at the top of its list of 46 areas of concern that it had with the site plan. Yet the board voted 5-2 to approve it.
It did so despite the fact that the engineering report and revised site plan materials had been provided to abutters and the public just that day, meaning there was no time to review them. A request from Freedom Planning Board Chair Anne Cunningham for time to read the documents before the board voted was denied.
“I understand your concerns, but this is the Town of Ossipee,” Planning Board member Dennis Legendre told Cunningham, according to the Carroll County Independent. “I was elected by the people of Ossipee. I’m supposed to look out for their interests. Their interest supersedes anything you might have to say.”
Freedom took Ossipee to court, and Northgate filed as an intervener. In the summer of 2017, Northgate settled with Freedom by agreeing to make changes in the Ossipee-approved site plan that included new soil tests for the septic system, and ensuring camper compliance with Ossipee’s zoning regulations for RVs located on the floodplain.
In an editorial five years ago, Carroll County Independent Editor Tom Beeler took Ossipee to task for its “puzzling” attitude about conservation and environmental issues, and its willingness to “attack” conservation groups and individuals concerned about environmentally risky proposals as “enemies of economic development.”
Citing the West Ossipee gas station proposal and the Westward Shores expansion plan, he reminded the newspaper’s readers that while people think we have a tourist economy, our economy is actually based on our environment.
“The one thing that attracts people of our state and county is its natural beauty and the quality of life that open space and clean air and water generates,” he wrote, adding “We can’t lose sight of those underlying facts.”
Beeler died a few years ago, and one wonders what he would have to say about Ossipee’s boards today.
On March 22, Ossipee Conservation Commission members heard from Effingham resident Blair Folts, along with Matt Howe, who heads Green Mountain Conservation Group, and Ossipee residents Rich Fahy and Elizabeth Gillette, the latter a former Conservation Commission chair. The group asked the commissioners to carefully review the Effingham gas station case before rendering an opinion.
At the conclusion of the meeting, long-time Commission member and former gas station owner Ralph Buchanan said he disagreed with the group’s environmental concerns, and told a story about how a hose leak at his station “sprayed 500 gallons of gas.”
“But gas just evaporates,” Buchanan said, “and it’s not really that toxic.”
The commissioners said they would consider the information the group presented and meet with them again at the next scheduled meeting. Later that day, however, they sent a letter to the Select Board saying they had no objection to the gas station.