Effingham—January 31, 2024—In addition to removing the Fire Chief’s long-standing role in approving Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure Plans (SPCCs), Effingham’s Planning Board wants to eliminate a similar role held by the Conservation Commission.
SPCCs are action plans to “prevent, contain and minimize releases from ordinary or catastrophic events such as oil and gas spills, floods or fires that may cause a large release of regulated substances.”
The zoning ordinance requires the Planning Board to obtain the Fire Chief’s approval of SPCCs, and to solicit the Conservation Commission “for its written recommendations” prior to ruling on whether an SPCC is adequate to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public.
As reported this week, the Planning Board wants to remove the Fire Chief’s responsibility from the ordinance because it is “beyond the scope and skill level” of the Chief, and because SPCCs are “developed by a qualified engineer.”
What many missed in the initial reading of the board’s recommendations, however, is that the Conservation Commission’s role would also be eliminated, leaving the Planning Board as the sole arbiter of SPCCs.
The two sets of required reviews—the Fire Chief’s and the Conservation Commission’s—provide separate but related experience-based evaluations that can aid the Planning Board’s deliberations. The three-way evaluation process provides an extra measure of assurance to the public in regard to assessing the risks of handling and storing controlled substances.
Critics of the zoning change said the board’s plan to add language that a “Review by a qualified third party may be required” is inadequate as a replacement for the local reviews that would be scrapped. That’s because an outside review would be optional, not required, and the Planning Board may lack the expertise to decide on its own if an outside review is needed.
They point to the Planning Board’s months-long resistance to hiring a third-party advisor in the Meena LLC gas station case.
The Planning Board hired an advisor only after public pressure to do so by officials and residents of neighboring towns and the Lakes Region Planning Commission, who argued that the applicant’s environmental materials were inadequate. The subsequent independent analysis proved the critics were correct.
A “Regulatory Dead End”
Ossipee Lake Alliance reacted to the proposed zoning changes by pointing out that the Planning Board’s proposed language requiring that SPCC applicants comply with DES’s SPCC requirements would create a “regulatory dead end.”
The Alliance said DES’s SPCC regulations pertain solely to above-ground petroleum storage tanks, and not to the handling and storage of the controlled substances covered by the ordinance’s current language. That would create a loophole to be exploited by developers, the organization said.
Established in 2011
The Fire Chief and Conservation Commission roles were established when town voters approved the Groundwater Protection Ordinance as Article 22 of its zoning ordinance in 2011. The document was based on a “model ordinance” created by DES to help communities establish local groundwater protections not covered by state regulations.
In separate emails, DES and the N.H. Association of Conservation Commissions (NHACC) pointed to RSA 36-A as the basis of authorizing conservation commissions to provide input to other community boards, including planning boards.
“This is an important role for conservation commissions,” said Barbara Richter, NHACC’s Executive Director.
The Planning Board did not respond to an email asking who tasked board member Elaine Chick to “track change” the ordinance and tee-up the discussion that led to the board’s January 18 decision to recommend zoning ordinance rewrites. Neither the Fire Chief nor the Conservation Commission were represented at the meeting.
An email from the Planning Board last week said it will decide whether to put the proposed changes before voters after it holds a public hearing this Friday evening, February 2.
The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at the Town Office, 68 School St. in Effingham. Green Mountain Conservation Group plans to provide Zoom access to the meeting at this link.