How a Gas Station Became a Rallying Cry for Environmentalists

Freedom—June 16, 2024—The details of how Effingham officials accommodated a developer’s plan to build a gas station on top of the region’s supply of drinking water have emerged piecemeal in news stories during the past three years.

But now a podcaster has produced a program with a narrative explaining the genesis of the case and why its outcome has implications beyond our part of the state.

The podcaster is Anita Burroughs, a Glen resident who produces and hosts the program “Digging In,” a series of interviews with people “whose work affects the way we live,” as she describes it.

Burroughs says the program aims to help people understand the state’s political process, something she knows well as the State Representative for Carroll 2, a district that includes nearby Sandwich.

Burroughs is a Democrat, but she says political labels are not what her podcast is about.

“I don’t care if you’re a Dem, I don’t care if you’re a Republican, I’m all about moderates who support public safety, particularly as it relates to water and clean energy,” she says.

To explore the environmental issues surrounding the Effingham gas station case, she recently brought together Tara Schroeder of Green Mountain Conservation Group, geoscientist Dr. Bob Newton, and David Smith of Ossipee Lake Alliance for an interview.

All three have been part of the Effingham gas station case since the spring of 2021, when it began with two mistakes, as Smith put it.

A Conway developer applied to Effingham’s ZBA to ask for a special exception approval for a gas station as an expansion of an existing use at the Boyle’s Market convenience store on Route 25, Smith explained.

The ZBA approved the application despite the fact that the “existing use” as a gas station had ceased to exist in 2015, and town zoning prohibited a new gas station at the site as an environmental threat.

The Planning Board caught the errors and sent the proposed site plan back to the ZBA.

“At that point the ZBA could have simply acknowledged their error and advised the developer that town law prohibits a gas station at that site for environmental reasons, but obviously that’s not what they did,” Smith said.

Geoscientist Newton filled in the blanks about the Boyles Market location, which he knows well from years of studying the geology of our part of the state.

“Think of it as a huge deposit of sand and gravel created when the last glacier retreated,” he said. “The ground there is highly permeable, and rain and snow melt are quickly absorbed.”

But the groundwater isn’t like a lake, he noted. It’s actually a moving body of water flowing from high areas of recharge to low areas of discharge where it feeds lakes, streams and springs.

“If chemicals get absorbed into the groundwater, they’re going to move wherever the groundwater moves,” he said, “and that would make contamination at this site a regional problem, not just a local one.”

Newton said it was important to understand that gasoline is not just one chemical, and that makes gasoline spills complex. He said there are plenty of examples of spills in Carroll County.

“Gasoline is a cocktail of chemicals, and some of them are highly toxic,” he said, adding that since most people don’t regularly test their wells for complex chemical contaminants, they would never know if they were exposed.

Green Mountain’s Schroeder told Burroughs that people were surprised to learn that town officials, not the state, control where gas stations are located.

Schroeder has for years advised local residents and officials that protecting drinking water is a local responsibility. She echoed Newton’s concerns about contaminants entering the groundwater at the Boyle’s site and migrating far downstream.

Then she raised another issue.

“We’re concerned that if the courts uphold Effingham’s approval of a variance for the gas station, it will set a precedent with unpredictable results,” she said.

Schroeder said her organization is using the Effingham case as an example of why communities that already have groundwater protections need to strengthen them by setting a higher bar for variances.

Asked by Burroughs why Effingham’s ZBA didn’t simply turn down the gas station idea after being reminded by the Planning Board that the zoning ordinance prohibits them at the site, the three agreed it can be hard for small town boards to stand up to powerful people.

The principals in the Effingham case are Pankaj “Prince” Garg, a regional developer, Jim Doucette, a well-known Conway real estate agent, and Mark McConkey, a septic system contractor and long-time Republican State Representative.

At the start of the application process in 2021, Effingham’s Select Board told the developer he could start building the gas station before the site plan was reviewed and approved by the Planning Board, a fact that took more than two years of public pressure to be revealed.

During several months of gas station hearings in the summer of 2021, Select Board members remained silent about their approval while a public debate raged about whether someone in town government might have authorized the impermissible construction.

Schroeder pointed out that opposition to the gas station by residents and municipal officials of nine surrounding towns, as well as by organizations including Audubon, The Nature Conservancy and the Saco River Corridor Commission, appeared to have little effect on Effingham’s decision-makers.

Newton added that for months the town sided with the developer to block him from speaking at public hearings. The developer’s attorney called him “unqualified” and said he “lacked standing,” while the ZBA chair essentially brushed him off by saying she was already familiar with his opinions.

The three interviewees also agreed DES played a controversial role in the case by allowing the developer to install new underground gasoline storage tanks using the more permissive standards for “replacement” tanks, even though the old gas tanks at the site were removed years ago and the site was classified as “permanently closed.”

“That decision by DES allowed the new gas tanks to be located closer to the public water supply well than should have been allowed,” Newton said.

Smith said that he and Newton and Schroeder have learned a lot from their involvement in the case, which remains in court through two appeals filed by abutting residential property owners Tammy McPherson and Bill Bartoswicz.

“This case has never been about my organization or Green Mountain or Bob Newton,'” Smith said. “It has always been about Tammy and Bill, who are exercising their legal right to try to protect their drinking water.”

The “Digging In” podcast is at www.digginginnh.com.

5 Comments

  1. Megan F. 1 month ago June 17, 2024

    Loved Mrs. Burroughs podcast! Tammy and Bill have private wells and they bought their property knowing that it was in a Protected Water district – in fact, their property abutted 5,000+ acres of protected land. Yet the Planning Board, which is charged with “health, welfare and safety” of its citizens, permitted 30,000 gallons of gas tanks to be installed within 300+ feet of Bill’s well. If they can do it to Bill, they can do it to any one. Surface water flows to Phillips Brook (which enters in to Ossipee Lake) and Ground Water flows in the exact direction from the tanks to Bill’s well. Nothing in the last 3 years has changed this most basic of hydrodynamics.

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  2. Tim Otterbach 1 month ago June 17, 2024

    You may be a resident who is either just now becoming aware of this assault on our aquifer for the first time, or a Citizen who is already concerned about this threat, and chooses to support the continued efforts to both protect our most valuable resource, and recognize the need to hold the Effingham Land Use Boards to their obligations to protect the Health, Safety and Welfare of all the Citizens who obtain their drinking water from our Ossipee Aquifer. 

    In both cases, you may support to the continued efforts of the Ossipee Watershed League,  OWL,  a grass roots group of concerned citizens who have taken on the challenge of protecting our extraordinary groundwater resource, the Ossipee Aquifer..

    To contribute to the abutters’ legal efforts, you can make a tax-deductible donation to OWL’s fiscal agent, Chocorua Lake Conservancy, which is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

    Checks should be made out to Chocorua Lake Conservancy with a notation that the donation is for OWL. Checks should be sent to OWL, P.O. Box 122, Freedom, NH 03836

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  3. Helen Steele 1 month ago June 17, 2024

    Terrific. Do nit let up. Clean water and air. All animals deserve both.

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  4. Paul W H Tung MD 4 weeks ago June 19, 2024

    This ‘discussion’ can disappear forever if the Effingham town officials take health, clean water and environmental safety of the regional residents to heart and issued the correct decision! NO, NO AND NO to the gas station!!!

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  5. Jeremy 4 weeks ago June 19, 2024

    I find it interesting that at several points this project should have been nulled. I can’t help but wonder if who the owner is played a role.

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