September 26, 2012PLYMOUTH — One of the more controversial cases to come before Plymouth's Planning Board in recent months was brought to an end last week with the board's decision to approve a pair of site plans for a McDonald's restaurant and a Bank of New Hampshire branch office to be located on a parcel of land at the intersection of Highland Street and Tenney Mountain Highway that was once considered as a possible site for a Lowe's Home Improvement store.
Despite the fact that last week's meeting, held on Sept. 20, had been noticed as simply a continuation of the board's deliberations on the two site plans (which began during their Sept. 6 business meeting), with no further public input permitted, resident Mary Crowley approached the board during the Public Comment period at the start of the Sept. 20 meeting to ask whether Chairman Mike Ahern would be willing to re-open the public hearings on the two site plans and allow her an opportunity to voice her concerns about the proposal.
Ahern informed Crowley that although she was free to ask that the hearings be re-opened, he intended to deny her request, as both hearings had been formally closed during the Sept. 6 meeting.
"We're just following protocol," he said, explaining that the public hearings had already been held on both site plans in accordance with state law, and that the board's deliberations had been orally continued until Sept. 20, a practice also permitted under state law.
Disagreeing with Ahern's position, Crowley questioned the manner in which the Sept. 6 hearings had been conducted, pointing to the planning board's own bylaws, which she interpreted as requiring that the board first accept an application for a site plan as complete, then hold a subsequent public hearing at a later date, giving concerned residents an opportunity to process the information presented with the application before speaking in favor of or against it.
Ray Gosney, the selectmen's representative to the board, suggested that Crowley was interpreting the bylaws incorrectly. It has been common practice for at least the past eight years, he said, for the board to move immediately into a public hearing once it has accepted an application as complete.
Maintaining her position that the bylaws called for a period of time to pass between the acceptance of an application and a public hearing, Crowley also questioned the manner in which the Sept. 20 meeting had been noticed, asking the board where it had been posted.
Town Planner Sharon Penney explained that notices announcing the meeting had been posted 10 days in advance at the Town Hall, Hannaford, the Pease Public Library, on the town Web site, and in a newspaper of local circulation, as required by state law.
Asked by Crowley which newspaper the notice had appeared in, Penney replied that it was published in the Laconia Daily Sun. Crowley questioned that decision, arguing that she and many other residents of Plymouth do not regularly read the Daily Sun, and choose instead to get their news from the Record Enterprise.
Penney attempted to explain that the submission deadlines for public notices at the Record Enterprise have, at times, conflicted with the board's commitment to processing applications in a timely manner, but was cut off by Crowley, who dismissed the board's efforts to notice the Sept. 20 meeting as "not good enough."
Gosney attempted to address Crowley's concerns at a later point in the meeting by explaining that both the planning board and the board of selectmen have chosen to no longer publish public notices in the Record Enterprise because its submission deadlines, and the fact that it is a weekly publication, rather than a daily one, were beginning to prevent both boards from moving forward with site plan applications and other town business in a timely manner.
Before moving forward with the evening's agenda, Ahern took a moment to address an error in the article re-capping the Sept. 6 hearings that appeared on the front page of the Sept. 13 edition of the Record Enterprise.
The Sept. 13 article, he said, mistakenly inferred, based on his opening remarks at the Sept. 6 hearings, that the planning board had, in the past, made mistakes that cost the town thousands in legal fees. The legal expenses he was referring to, he explained, were in fact the result of a zoning board decision that was challenged by the applicant, requiring the town attorney to defend the zoning board's position in court at a cost of $60,000 to $100,000.
The purpose of his remarks on the evening of Sept. 6, he said, was to assure the townspeople that the planning board would be "doing everything to the best of [its] ability" to avoid a similar scenario with the Tenney Mountain Highway project.
With Town Engineer Mike Vignale in attendance to address the board's concerns about the proposed drainage system at the Tenney Mountain Highway site (which he felt would be sufficient to handle a 50-year flood event), discussion of the two site plans centered on whether the board should consider assessing impact fees on the project that could be used in the future to install sidewalks along either side of Tenney Mountain Highway near the site in order to accommodate pedestrian traffic. Board members ultimately agreed by consensus that it would be best to re-visit the discussion of impact fees following the completion of a new corridor study along Tenney Mountain Highway that the board hopes to undertake some time in the near future.
On a motion from Gosney, the board voted 5-1 (with Paul Wilson dissenting) to approve the site plan for the McDonald's restaurant, provided the developer meets certain conditions of approval.
The site plan for the bank building was also granted conditional approval in a 5-1 vote (with Wilson again dissenting) on a motion from board member John Randlett.
The board also approved a separate site plan submitted by Duane Besso for a two-story, 960-square-foot Cape-style commercial building on Route 25. Besso's plan called for a two-car garage on the lower level, and a possible retail space on the top floor (although he commented that the idea of a retail business is "up in the air" at the moment).