Freedom—October 19, 2022—Voters this year have a good idea about where candidates for State office stand on protecting water resources. That’s thanks to the debate over HB 1454, the bill that would have increased groundwater protection by updating State landfill regulations.
The campaign to override the Governor’s veto of that bipartisan bill, and the fact that the effort failed last month by just five votes, virtually ensured that water protection would figure in the November 8 election.
Locally, the most talked-about water issue is the proposed gas station in Effingham’s Groundwater Protection District, where the Zoning Ordinance has prohibited new gas stations for more than a decade because of their threat to the Ossipee Aquifer.
Meena LLC, a commercial real estate holding company, was granted relief from the prohibition by Effingham’s ZBA, but has failed to obtain Site Plan approval because of opposition to the development that spans eight communities, including two in Maine.
That has made groundwater protection an election issue, including in District 5, where incumbent State Representative Jonathan Smith is being challenged by Pat Pustell to represent the Town of Ossipee.
Smith, who also chairs Ossipee’s Select Board, says he supports the gas station provided that it meets State and Federal requirements. The Select Board backs him, but his position has angered Ossipee residents living near the proposed site, some of whom have sought protection from the development in court.
In a newspaper letter, Pustell wrote “I love our clean water; my opponent apparently does not,” promising that she will keep waterways “safe and clean.” Pustell cited Smith’s support of Meena LLC and his opposition to HB 1454 as evidence that he favors “special interests like gas stations and trash haulers.”
Smith said Pustell is wrong: his gas station support is conditional, and DES had the same issues he had with the landfill bill. The real “special interests,” he said, are organizations like Green Mountain Conservation Group, where Pustell said she volunteers to collect water samples, not a “small business gas station owner” like Meena LLC.
There is heat also in the State Representative race in District 8, which post-election will encompass Moultonborough, Tamworth, Madison, Freedom, Eaton, Effingham, Wakefield, and Brookfield—five of which have “Development of Regional Impact” abutter status in the gas station case.
Incumbent Representative Mark McConkey is Meena LLC’s agent for the gas station, responsible for obtaining approvals from State and local officials. A gas station owner himself, McConkey’s appearances on behalf of Meena LLC last year centered on assurances that “state-of-the-art equipment” will make the proposed gas station safe to operate.
Since then, his only public comment on the matter appears to be a recent quote in the Conway Daily Sun saying he and his client look forward to moving ahead with the development, and opposition to the plan has cost Effingham “thousands of dollars.” McConkey opposed HB 1454.
McConkey’s opponent, incumbent Representative Jerry Knirk, supported HB 1454 and has opposed the gas station since last winter, when he urged Freedom officials to review the research and consider the potential threat. Freedom’s Select Board subsequently opposed the development and asked that an Environmental Impact Assessment be conducted.
Knirk and Ossipee State Representative William Marsh wrote letters to DOT asking that it deny Meena LLC’s plan to use State land for gas station runoff, saying it would be an environmental threat and expose the State to financial liability. DOT backed away from the idea.
Like Knirk, Marsh became involved in the gas station issue at the beginning of the year. He reminded Ossipee leaders that the town has a Groundwater Protection Ordinance, and said residents expect to be protected from actions taken by a neighboring town that might threaten their wells.
Marsh supported HB 1454, and is in a campaign to unseat Jeb Bradley in District 3, which runs from Hart’s Location to Wolfeboro and includes six communities with Meena abutter status. Bradley also wrote letters to DOT and Effingham about Meena LLC’s proposed use of State land, asking that there be a “thorough review of potential impacts.” Bradley supported HB 1454.
Also running is political newcomer Bobbi Boudman, who is vying with Glenn Cordelli to represent Ossipee in District 7, which includes Wolfeboro and Tuftonboro. Boudman’s website has “protecting our public lands and waters” at the top of her list of “State Legislature Obligations.”
She has attended local hearings on the Meena LLC matter, and uses social media to encourage citizen involvement in the issue. In a recent public letter, she pointed to her opponent’s opposition to HB 1454 as one of the important differences between them.
Protecting our water resources hasn’t seeped into an election cycle in this way since area towns voted to adopt Groundwater Protection Ordinances a decade ago. Whether concerns about water are temporary or long-lasting could be determined on November 8, when water will be one of the many issues on the ballot.
This issue certainly shows the need for citizen participation. Many have tried to understand the how and why of wanting to mess around in the groundwater protection district – does it have to do with money? Well – what’s that old song about pave paradise and putting up a parking lot! Oh, how about a gas station on the top of an aquifer — the same folks who put the car wash, gas station, and laundry on the side of the river? What does State Representative McConkey have to do with this? Is this the same man who tried some hardscape on the slope in his yard allowing water to run into the Lake?