Effingham—May 15, 2023—Ten minutes into last week’s lightly-attended Planning Board meeting Thursday night, Board Chair George Bull asked the five candidates applying for open board seats if anyone had a conflict of interest in the Meena LLC gas station case, which is currently before the board. Each said they did not.
By the end of the meeting, however, the board had appointed two new members whose votes on the ZBA helped the Conway real estate developer obtain relief from the Groundwater Protection Ordinance’s prohibition against a gas station at the Route 25 site.
Nate Williams, who will fill the voting seat vacated by David Garceau last month, was a member of the ZBA in 2021 when Meena first requested the variance. Meeting minutes show he voted in favor of the variance and against the application being a Development of Regional Impact.
Michael Cahalane, who will be an alternate on the Planning Board, also served on the ZBA in 2021. Like Williams, Cahalane voted to grant Meena a variance for a gas station.
In framing the conflict of interest question, Bull cited the need to avoid clear conflicts such as working for the applicant or being an abutting property owner. In response to a question from an audience member, he said it was “less clear” whether past votes on the Meena issue would also be a conflict.
Bull said if there is a question of conflict about a member during the Meena hearing, which is Wednesday night, it can be raised by a member of the public.
He said it was “fortunate” there are alternates on the board if someone is recused, but he conceded that recusal is voluntary and cannot be mandated.
“This board does not have that power once someone is seated,” he said.
All five candidates submitted an application to the board by Tuesday’s deadline, and each was allowed to verbally present their credentials.
Cahalane said the board was familiar with his municipal experience, and cited his time on the ZBA in 2021, and being on the Select Board that year as it addressed Meena’s unlawful gas station construction activities.
In addition to his former role on the ZBA, Williams told the board he is the Deputy Fire Chief of Ossipee, has a mechanical engineering background, and is a volunteer with the school.
Bridget Perry said she is familiar with evaluating site plan applications from six years of serving on Ossipee’s Planning Board. She said it was sometimes hard to deny an application, but “you have to do what you have to do according to the rules.”
Linda Edwards said she has lived in town for more than 50 years. She said she has no municipal board experience but is open to learning. Her interest was solely in a one-year position as an alternate, she said.
Edwards was quickly appointed as an alternate, and a rank-ordered vote was held to replace Garceau as a voting member. Williams and Perry tied, so Cahalane and Racine were assigned to be alternates. A second vote was held in which Williams and Perry again tied.
After the second tie, Select Board representative Chris Seamans suggested that the next vote focus on the candidates’ experience. Bull said both candidates were experienced, and added that Williams’ work for the Ossipee Fire Department is “relevant to what we’re doing as well.”
Without further discussion, board member Elaine Chick made a motion to seat Williams, saying it was “Just because Nate’s young. He’s got a young face coming in.”
After Chick was cautioned by member Grace Fuller to “not say that,” Chick explained that it was based on Williams telling the board it needed more young people.
Chick’s motion for Williams was seconded by Fuller and passed unanimously, with Gary Jewell abstaining.
Requests made to the Planning Board for copies of the application documents prior to the meeting were denied, as was a request for copies of the applications during the meeting.