Effingham—May 14, 2023—The last time Effingham’s Planning Board held a special hearing to consider Meena LLC’s gas station proposal was August 22 last year. As 115 people sat in the meeting room and watched on Zoom, Board Chair Theresa Swanick, visibly angry, canceled the meeting.
The reason, she said, was that Meena had once again submitted a flurry of new and revised documents at the last minute, leaving insufficient time for the board, its independent third-party consultant and the public to review them.
In frustration, Swanick and Vice-Chair George Bull mustered a board vote mandating that the applicant provide a final Site Plan Application by September 9. Meena complied, but the board’s independent consultant, North Point Engineering, found the submission unapprovable—its third negative report on Meena’s submissions.
A scheduled October 6 hearing to review the final application was scuttled after a judge issued a stay in the proceedings to consider an appeal of a previous Planning Board decision. There the matter remained until the stay was lifted in mid-April, and a special hearing was scheduled for this Wednesday, May 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the Elementary School.
This time there will be a new board chair and several new board members, but the confusion surrounding the Site Plan Application materials remains the same.
On top of hundreds of previous documents, Meena has submitted close to 300 pages of material since the board’s September deadline—including materials submitted in February while the court-ordered stay was in place.
Asked at the Planning Board’s May 4 meeting whether the board had voted to rescind the deadline or had voted to accept the additional materials, Board Chair George Bull declined to comment. Nor would he comment on reports that Meena’s attorney sent revised materials directly to North Point Engineering for review, which the board voted last year to prohibit.
Bull said questions about the submissions would be answered at the hearing on May 17, adding that neither he nor the board knows what Meena will present that night.
Also in the dark are municipal officials of towns affected by the Development of Regional Impact proposal, some of whom have taken a serious and active interest in assessing whether the Meena proposal is a long-term environmental threat to the Ossipee Aquifer, which provides drinking water to their residents.
Emails from officials in Eaton and Tamworth requesting a copy of the final Site Plan Application last week went unanswered as of Friday. Similar requests from Ossipee and Effingham residents have also gone unanswered in the past two weeks.
The Planning Board has acknowledged the disorganization of the Meena materials, which span two years and comprise hundreds of pages of documents. Physical copies are housed in a large box in the town office, and digital copies are stored in the board’s limited-access Dropbox account. Neither storage method has an index or a master file.
Convenience Store Issue
In an additional complication to this week’s hearing, a zoning ordinance issue directly related to the Planning Board proceedings remains pending.
On April 20, Zoning Officer Rebecca Boyden ruled that Meena’s convenience store had lost its grandfathered status after being closed for more than two years. She instructed the company by letter to include its plan for the store as part of the gas station Site Plan Application.
A convenience store is a permitted use at the Meena site, but the loss of grandfathered status means the store must be brought into compliance with the ordinance’s current requirements, including building size and parking spaces.
An email thread from two years ago shows that Boyden told Meena it could keep the store open while it applied to the Planning Board for approval of a gas station. A separate email exchange at the time shows Boyden’s position on abandonment to be consistent with Town Counsel Matthew Serge’s position on abandonment. Serge submitted his opinion on abandonment during the ZBA’s Meena variance hearings after being asked by the board to do so.
At the Planning Board’s April 20 work session, Chairman Bull took issue with Boyden’s letter, which had been issued several hours earlier. He said there was no abandonment, and he called on the Select Board to rescind the document, saying it was a “time sensitive matter.”
Days later he appeared before the Select Board and reiterated his opposition to the letter and asked for Town Counsel to review it, saying he was speaking as a town resident, not as Chairman of the Planning Board. The Select Board later sent the letter to Town Counsel for review.
An official in one of the towns affected by the Meena application, who requested anonymity, called Bull’s public opposition to Boyden’s decision “disturbing” and a “serious loose end” that could present a conflict of interest as the Planning Board’s proceedings get underway again.
The Meena hearing will be at the Effingham Elementary School, 6 Partridge Road, at 6:30 p.m. this Wednesday, May 17. There will be no Zoom access.