The following article is by Matt Howe, Executive Director of Green Mountain Conservation Group. It is reprinted from the organization’s Fall, 2022 issue of The Watershed News.
As the result of a NH Superior Court stay issued by Judge Amy Ignatius on September 29th, further public proceedings are currently on hold regarding the application from Meena, LLC to operate a gas station at the site formerly known as Boyle’s Market at the corner of NH Route 25 and Leavitt Bay Road on the Effingham-Ossipee town line.
Her ruling is in response to an appeal filed by GMCG, Ossipee Lake Alliance and the abutters of the Effingham Planning Board’s August 22nd vote that Meena is not required to file a Special Use Permit. Once public deliberations resume, the volunteer members of the Effingham Planning Board will continue their earnest review of the details of Meena’s proposal and make a final decision based upon their determination of the application’s conformity with the town’s zoning ordinance.
Over the past year and a half, GMCG staff and volunteers have collaborated with the Ossipee Lake Alliance, abutters to site, and other concerned citizens to raise the alarm about this proposal. We have done so not only because gas stations are a prohibited use under the Effingham Groundwater Protection Ordinance (GPO), but because our analysis along with the findings of others have exposed dozens of flaws in Meena’s application documents, and mounting concerns about how unfit this site is for a gas station based upon its geology, hydrology, and its past history as a gravel pit.
Critique of the application has been rigorous. Noted geologist Dr. Robert Newton has, through a series of letters to the Planning Board, a video, and public lectures, illuminated how vulnerable the groundwater supplies under the Meena site are to potential contamination from normal gas station operations and anticipated stormwater runoff. Additionally, at the request of the Planning Board, Northpoint Engineering of Concord, N.H. has issued three separate reports identifying scores of problems with Meena’s site design and adherence to the Town’s zoning ordinance. Links to Dr. Newton’s content and the Northpoint reviews are available here.
We remain optimistic that the members of the Planning Board will conclude that they cannot simultaneously approve a gas station at this site and meet their obligation to protect public health and safety. Beyond their consideration of each and every detail, we also hope the Planning Board will keep in mind that passage of the Town’s Ground Water Protection Ordinance (GPO) was not an accident, nor has it been outdated by technology since approved by voters in 2011.
Effingham’s GPO was the outcome of years of research, education and organizing. GMCG is proud to have contributed to the effort, but the ordinance would never have come to fruition were it not for scores of thoughtful, informed and dedicated town residents and town officials who had a vision for their community. Central to that vision was a recognition that the long-term economic prosperity of Effingham depended on a permanent source of clean drinking water, and that source was a stratified drift aquifer highly vulnerable to human contamination.
The GPO did not prohibit gas stations everywhere, only in groundwater protection districts where the risk to established drinking water supplies was simply too great to risk the known impacts of a gas station. Existing gas stations were grandfathered; but in 2015 the then owners of Boyle’s shut down the pumps and, with financial assistance from the State, had the underground storage tanks removed. Two years later, under the terms of the GPO, the operation of a gas station at that site became an officially “abandoned” use.
Now some proponents of this project ask us to embrace a narrative that improvements in gas station safety, particularly underground storage tank technology, render the 2011 GPO obsolete and justify the variance. Aside from the fact that a planning board cannot invalidate or ignore an ordinance based on such reasoning, this argument is flawed.
Yes, the technology has improved (it sure needed to!), but that changes nothing about the original basis for the ordinance. The geology of this site and Effingham’s stratified drift aquifer have not changed. The locations of dozens of families’ wells have not changed. The toxicity of gasoline has not changed. Most important of all, Effingham’s GPO has not changed – the town still has a GPO approved by the people that says gas stations are a prohibited use in a groundwater protection district.
The passage of a GPO was an important chapter in the Town’s history. It is a story of people working together with a shared commitment to preserving irreplaceable natural resources across town boundaries. We are confident the Effingham Planning Board will weigh everything that matters when they make their ruling, and not turn back the clock on their community’s hard won progress.