Search Ends for Letter in Effingham Case

Effingham—February 14, 2024—The search for a letter said to explain why Effingham’s Select Board withdrew its demand that developer Meena LLC bring its convenience store into zoning compliance has ended. 

In response to a public information request, the town last week said that no such letter could be found. 

Effingham Select Board member Chris Seamans made the letter an issue on January 3 at a ZBA hearing considering an appeal by Meena’s abutters that the Planning Board’s approval of the developer’s gas station site plan violates the zoning ordinance. 

One of the claims in the abutters’ appeal is that Meena’s convenience store lost its status as a grandfathered non-conforming use after being closed for more than two years, making it an “abandoned” use in zoning terms.

Visibly angered by speakers supporting the appeal, Seamans accused them of ignoring a letter on the abandonment issue from Town Counsel Matthew Serge to the Select Board and Planning Board. 

Seamans, who sits on the Planning Board as well as the Select Board, told the hearing that Serge “changed his mind” about abandonment, implying that the letter explained why the town ruled last year that the store was abandoned, then reversed itself a few weeks later. 

Meena says it always intended to reopen the store, but was prevented from doing so by the town’s cease-and-desist order, which halted completion of an underground gasoline storage tank system that did not have town approvals. 

The abutters’ attorney says Meena’s intent is “irrelevant” because intent is not a factor of abandonment as defined by the ordinance, and the company “created its own alleged inability to open the store” with its unapproved installation of underground tanks.

In their appeal to the ZBA, the abutters say the Planning Board was obligated to resolve the abandonment question before approving the site plan, per Section 8 of the town’s Site Plan Review Regulations. 

Issue Raised a Year Ago
The zoning status of the convenience store came to the public’s attention last April when the Select Board authorized a letter to Meena stating it lost its grandfathered non-conforming use status after being closed for more than two years.

“For zoning purposes, I must now consider [the store] to be an empty building looking for a new use,” the Code Enforcement Officer wrote. 

Reopening the store, the letter said, would require bringing it into current compliance, including its size, and applying to the town for approval to operate it.

Less than a month later, however, the Select Board withdrew the letter under pressure from Planning Board Chair George Bull and Meena attorney Matthew Johnson. 

Planning Board minutes indicate that Bull told his board there was no abandonment because the convenience store was part of the site plan application, and “technically the clock stops on everything related to that application.”

He asked the Select Board’s representative, Chris Seamans, to intervene to have the letter withdrawn, calling it a “time sensitive” matter. Bull subsequently appeared before the Select Board on May 2 to make the same request himself. 

In a May 8 letter to the town, Meena Attorney Matthew Johnson called the Code Enforcement Officer’s letter “inappropriate” because his client was unable to reopen the store due to the cease-and-desist order. 

Johnson said the cease-and-desist order was “a direct result” of “inaccurate information” that town officials gave to his client at the start of the application process in 2021. 

If the abandonment letter wasn’t retracted, he wrote, his client would appeal and seek the Code Enforcement Officer’s correspondence because she was “observed” speaking with members of conservation organizations at a public meeting.  

The town withdrew the letter a week later, correcting the date of the store’s closure, but stating that the parties were, nonetheless, “in agreement” that the store was closed for more than two years.

Missing in the revised letter was the requirement that the store be brought into current compliance because of the two-year lapse in use.

The webpage has a chronology of the gas station case and access to all case documents.

1 comment

  1. Diana 2 months ago February 15, 2024

    Incompetence reigns supreme.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *