April 18, 2017NEW DURHAM — A crowd of more than 100 residents and officials from at least three towns gathered at a public hearing in the elementary school gym last Tuesday - pretty much in universal opposition to a proposed project that would extract millions of cubic yards of gravel over several years.
Among those making their thoughts known to the zoning board of adjustment were selectmen hailing from surrounding communities, as well as abutters and their lawyers who argued that approval would negatively impact their property values and quality of life.
Red Oak Realty, which owns a parcel in a corner of New Durham, where it converges with neighboring Middleton and Wolfeboro, wants to extract, process and ship gravel from a site off the Kings Highway.
The three-and-a-half-hour public hearing began with a presentation by the applicant's engineer, Tom Varney, who explained how his client believes the proposal fits within existing zoning provisions.
He prefaced his slide deck by saying he was "hopeful we can have a fair hearing... people have fears about what we're doing."
Varney, of Varney Design LLC in Alton, addressed concerns that town officials and abutters raised at a planning board session some months ago. Since that board deemed that a commercial/industrial use of the site falls outside of the generally-accepted use of a parcel in an area zoned for residential, agricultural, and recreational purposes, the matter was referred to the ZBA for consideration.
Varney expressed surprise at the large turnout, noting that most of the ZBA meetings he's presented at have been sparsely attended. During his lengthy presentation, Varney noted, "I didn't know there would be so much adversity to this."
He said the applicant, Keith Babb, is the proprietor of a pit a short distance away in Middleton. Varney said Babb hopes to close this pit and move operations to the new site, which is located in the northern tip of New Durham where Kings Highway connects it to Middleton and Wolfeboro. He said the plan is to "repair and replace," noting that the retiring site would be re-vegetated.
He noted that the closing pit provided gravel to the new Middleton school, and that his client also runs an extraction operation in East Alton.
Varney said that the pit would operate from April to December, remaining dormant during the remainder of the year. The engineer said that the crushing of blasted rock would only occur during three weeks of the year, with the remainder of the season devoted to on-site sales, pick-up and delivery.
Varney stressed that he anticipates no impact on abutters' "viewshed," citing a forested strip located between the pit and nearby properties.
Not everyone in the decidedly oppositional audience believed this statement. One attendee muttered, "That's not true" as Varney continued to speak.
Varney said he's "sensitive to the fact that this is a "nice neighborhood" replete with "nice houses," and that the proposed project takes these matters into consideration.
He added that the site is not over a protected aquifer, and that wildlife impacts would be minimal. Varney said he and Babb "tiptoed through the tulips" to find a blast site on the parcel with minimal environmental impacts.
Noting that operations would produce dust, Varney added that the proposed plan includes a well whose primary function will be to hose down particulate matter.
Knowing that town officials and abutters have traffic concerns, Varney cited a study that predicts that operations would result in 10-15 daily truck runs; he said an anticipated a two percent increase in volume might result on a road that sees perhaps about 1,500 daily vehicle trips.
Varney also said that there is a clearance of some 400 feet on either side of the proposed entry way, providing, what he called, a "safe distance" for outbound traffic to turn onto Kings Highway.
As for the road itself: Wolfeboro residents know it as Middleton Road from its junction near Route 28 by Weston's Auto Body. It becomes Kings Highway at the New Durham line. In Middleton, it becomes Main Street in the vicinity of the new Middleton elementary school.
Varney called the road "extra strong." He cited multiple sub-layers of asphalt that could withstand the anticipated traffic of aggregate-laden trucks.
Varney said he and his client are sensitive to abutters' concerns about noise. He cited a federal report that said the "ambient decibel level" is about 40 decibels. He said that in a rural area, this consists of rustling leaves and birdsongs. He added that existing traffic driving at the posted 35 mph generates 57 decibels. Contextualizing, Varney added that the DOT considers 67 dBA to be acceptable, while HUD allows levels of up to 65 dBA.
To be sure, levels would likely be higher close to the operations themselves, but Varney predicted that levels recorded at the pit's nearest neighbor would be 61 at their height. He said his client's preferred subcontractor for extracting ledge, Maine Blasting, would execute its work in a manner consistent with local ordinances. Varney added that all plans for extraction would be consistent with existing regulations. He said his client's key concerns include "minimizing safety risks," "ensur[ing] health safeguards," "protect[ing] natural resources... and natural features."
Varney also said that there's a 2,000-foot clearance between the operational area and the nearest artesian well - and that abutters oughtn't be concerned about water quality impacts.
"Nothing from the blasts will get into the wells," he said.
Varney added that the parcel is located in a district that was deemed, in a 1978 map viewable at the town hall, as "most suitable" for urban/suburban development. He said a special exception to allow the proposed commercial/industrial use is consistent with the spirit of this assessment.
While acknowledging that parts of the parcel include some steep slopes, he said that the buildable areas constitute a "developer's dream," and that perhaps nine single-family units could be placed there. Varney said that his client's proposal would be tax-revenue-positive and not create a need for tax-inducing services.
His slide presentation included a letter from a realtor who said that a gravel pit in the neighborhood would not result in an adverse impact on local property values. Some residents later in the meeting questioned the objectiveness of the letter's author.
Varney didn't specify when extraction would cease, if approved, but said that his client is committed to laying loam and seed to help restore the site when it closes
Following Varney's talk, ZBA members were next entitled to ask questions. Chair Terry Jarvis said that subsequent speakers would include officials from surrounding communities, abutters, their advocates, and any members of the general public who wanted to chime in.
ZBA alternate David Shagoury asked if extraction activities would be limited to the small area delineated in the proposed plan, wondering if future on-site locations might be excavated.
"That's an unknown," said Shagoury, an alternate who earlier indicated that he would sit in for the remainder of the hearings related to the project.
ZBA member Joan Martin raised a concern about drifting dust, in spite of efforts previously described to mitigate potential effects.
Varney said that the entry way will be paved to keep dust down, and that water from an on-site well will allow the applicant to moisten dry ground to keep the wind from kicking up large clouds.
Other ZBA members wanted to know whether the pit would be a primarily industrial, wholesale, or retail operation. They indicated that such distinctions might inform how the proposed use is considered.
Jarvis noted that, it being mud season, roads are currently posted as to load limits.
"When signs are posted they comply," Varney said of his client's drivers. He said such observances are "standard in the industry."
As the public hearing progressed, the floor was opened to officials from New Durham and surrounding communities.
New Durham Selectman David Swenson, noting that he was not representing a formal consensus of the full BOS, said he perceived "somewhat of a hole" in Varney's presentation, citing what he considered a "lack of specifics" in the applicant's claim that local property values might not be adversely affected.
Swenson recommended that the town assessor evaluate potential impacts; he suggested that garnering the opinion of an independent third-party evaluator could also help the ZBA make an informed decision.
Speaking next was Middleton BOS vice-chair Jonathan Hotchkiss. He said Middleton officials are concerned about exiting truck traffic that would access Kings Highway to get to Routes 153 and 16.
"We in Middleton are proud of our roads; our crews work hard - this is an investment that we in Middleton wish to protect," he added, noting that Route 16-bound traffic would likely traverse a section or road where the new Middleton Elementary School is. He said his constituents have a local public safety stake in the ZBA's decision.
At the conclusion of his comments, Hotchkiss was greeted with applause by an audience visibly and audibly opposed to the applicant's plan.
New Durham town historian Cathy Orlowicz said that there's a cemetery in the vicinity of the proposed dig site. She said that considering the sanctity of final resting places is imperative.
Wolfeboro Selectmen Linda Murray and Dave Senecal spoke in opposition to the pit. They described proposed operations and resulting heavy traffic as a "nuisance."
They also questioned whether the proposed use constituted a primarily commercial operation, suggesting that the wholesale production of gravel represents more of an industrial use.
"This should be industrial," summarized Senecal.
They also noted that over three quarters of the site is at a 15 percent grade - putting it within the town's steep slope protection ordinance.
Several commenters expressed disappointment that they'd not learned of some critical details prior to the hearing.
Among them was Tracy Tarr, a staffer with the N.H. Association of Natural Resource Scientists.
She said that a site walk is a routine precondition when towns consider such projects. Tarr urged the ZBA to continue the discussion until after such an event occurs.
Of special consideration, Tarr added, is that a rare, federally-protected orchid known as small world begonia might reside on site.
Speaking next was Lake Winnipesaukee Golf Club manager David Przybylski. He said that "dust plumes" would be visible from the course's 14th and 15th holes and compromise his customers' recreational experience.
The golf club manager added that his facility and its surrounding woodlands represent an environment "where wildlife thrives," and that he and colleagues are concerned that the proposed project will affect local habitat. Przybylski said that he and fellow club staffers have seen moose, owls, bears, deer, turkeys and other species on or around their facility.
He added that the project's approval would "cause an enormous financial strain" for his facility, which he said employs some 50 workers. He noted said that "dust plumes" might be visible from the facility's dining room.
Przybylski said that a gravel pit's approval would "not be fair to the community that lives here," emphasizing that the Lake Winnipesaukee Golf Club is New Durham's largest single taxpayer.
The club's legal counsel, Jason Riemens, spoke next. He argued that the applicant's requested special exemption is not permissible under current town zoning regulations. He and subsequent speakers said that a special exception was not in line with current code and that a full variance would need to be considered.
Riemens said the applicant's proposal doesn't demonstrate that the project is either "most suitable or moderately suitable" for the types of approved uses, citing the "topography and slope" of the proposed site.
Given the site's landscape and the proposed extraction activities, the club's attorney said that a special consideration is not appropriate - and that a full variance to the town's zoning ordinance is what is needed. This would require a new and higher level of ZBA scrutiny.
Attorney Kurt DeVylder spoke in behalf of the Hatfield and Buell families, whose properties abut the proposed site.
DeVylder described Varney's presentation as being "rife with alternative facts."
He argued that the application doesn't meet the definition of a commercial use. He said that the operation is not being planned to serve "Joe pick-up truck" needing a bucket of gravel, but rather large-scale customers needing large quantities of aggregate for major projects. He noted such customers would likely need large vehicles that would create a "nuisance" and stress local infrastructure.
DeVylder suggested that it's "ridiculous" to assert that the presence of a quarry where blasting and crushing occurs won't affect property values and quality of life.
Residents speaking out against the project used terms such as "blighted" and "major negative consequences" to describe a potential project approval.
Abutter Carolyn Buell was one such resident.
Buell said she and her husband, John, built a "dream house" near the proposed site. She said both were diligent in researching for a site where they could establish a peaceful abode.
Buell spoke at length about possible adverse effects the project could create.
Buell said she and he husband already pay "exorbitant" taxes on their property and fear they will need to continue to do so in the event of a potential diminution of their property's worth.
Buell spoke at length about her concern about activities related to blasting, crushing and transport activities that she believes will increase the total noise volume of the area. She was critical of Varney's analysis of decibel impacts on abutters.
Buell said that she and her husband, in building their single-family house, followed policies to comply with land use regulations. They believe that at the crux of the matter is an issue of fairness.
Deidre McKenzie chimed in next. She said she experiences frequent migraines and selected her home near the site last September after having researched the area's' zoning regulations. She expressed frustration that a perceived disallowed use of abutting land will be in her vicinity.
McKenzie also noted that her kids board the school bus directly across from where trucks will enter and exit the proposed pit. She said children's safety is another key concern.
Heidi Kendall also spoke. Describing herself as a Wolfeboro resident and a New Durham taxpayer, she expressed concern about stormwater runoff into Rust Pond. She said that the potential of a ZBA special exemption would create a "dangerous precedent" that could have consequences in the future.
Kendall suggested that the town engage with an independent engineer who could assess potential impacts. She said that 75 homes are within a one-mile radius of the proposed site.
Stacy Trites spoke next, also in opposition of the proposal. She said her family moved from a Wolfeboro location on Main Street to a more rural location to get away from traffic volume.
She presented a written, page-and-a-half statement to the ZBA. "We fear the approval of what is essentially a bedrock quarry [that] will forever change the quiet nature of the area we call home," her statement read.
Trites cited a "hazard to safety" resulting from increased traffic.
She elaborated that the project poses additional public safety risks, noting, "The extent to which the proposed use could negatively affect the health of area residents is unclear, but what is known is that the potential to contaminate the air, water and soil is a very real threat."
Trites' statement also noted that the proposed extraction activities could result in a change in the character of the neighborhood. She wrote that the proposal is "inconsistent" with the current character of the immediate area, adding that approval of the project would be "unfair" to current residents.
Trites' letter added that a pit would "diminish property values of other land owners." She cited potential impacts to house foundations due to blasting, potential well failures, and increased traffic on Kings Highway.
She also noted that increased truck traffic could result in higher road maintenance expenses for Middleton, New Durham and Wolfeboro.
"Who will foot the bill for repair work," Trites' letter asked.
With several unanswered questions, the ZBA chose to continue the hearing to its May session. Jarvis said that the session will be posted on the town web site. She added that the ZBA will endeavor to secure the school gym to accommodate a large turnout. She added that, in the event of a scheduling conflict, the fire station community room is a potential alternative meeting space.