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Workforce housing hearing continued again

Abutters' attorney confronts planning board

September 22, 2009
ALTON — Tensions and tempers flared during the Alton Planning Board's Sept. 15 meeting, as the attorney hired by abutters to developer Ryan Heath's proposed workforce housing project on Route 140 confronted the board's chairman over a decision to discontinue public input on the case.

Heath, who received approval from the board last year for a 53-unit elderly housing development at the 17.5-acre site, located at 182 Frank C. Gilman Highway, submitted an amended site plan on Aug. 18 for a 55-unit workforce housing development.

Heath's attorney, Melissa Guldbrandsen, explained during the Aug. 18 meeting that he had proposed the change of use in response to the passage of RSA 674:60, the state's new workforce housing statute.

Several abutters came forward last month questioning the board's decision to accept the amended site plan, and arguing that the proposed change of use was significant enough to warrant a new site plan subject to a full-scale review.

With Chairman Bill Curtin declaring as he opened the Sept. 15 hearing on Heath's proposal that public input had been closed, attorney Malcolm McNeil, hired to represent abutters Randy and Elaine Glines, asked for permission to speak to the issue.

Although he initially denied McNeil's request, Curtin agreed, after conferring with Town Planner Sharon Penney, to give McNeil an opportunity to speak.

Approaching the board, McNeil asked about the status of a letter he recently submitted to the planning office outlining the reasons why he believed the board's decision to accept Heath's amended application was illegal.

Curtin said he had spoken with Town Attorney James Sessler, who advised him that McNeil's letter constituted new information about an application for which public comment had already been received, and could therefore not be accepted into the record.

An irate McNeil asked whether Curtin was suggesting that the board had made a decision on Heath's application after only one hearing, and had denied abutters the right to respond to any new information that Heath might plan to present that evening.

"It is unimaginable to me, as a land use attorney for 27 years, that you are telling me we can't speak [to any new developments]," he said, adding that among his reasons for questioning the board's acceptance of the amended plan was the fact that there is no provision in state law supporting the substitution of workforce housing for elderly housing.

Curtin replied that the board had chosen to close public input in order to digest the information presented to them last month, and decide how best to handle the application.

McNeil continued to object to what he saw as a situation in which the public had been denied the right to comment on an application submitted by a town employee (Heath was recently appointed as the town's new chief of police) which could have a significant impact on the local community.

"What are you afraid of?" he asked the board, adding that he felt the decision to close public input violated both state law and his clients' right to due process, and was "just plain wrong."

"What you've submitted is new information, and it can't be accepted," Curtin said. "I'm sorry."

"So, in Alton, it's a one-shot deal, is that it?" McNeil replied, calling the review process undertaken by the board "completely unusual."

"I'm not a rookie at this, and the course you're taking is not in the best interest of the community," he added before returning to his seat.

Guldbrandsen tried to explain that she and Heath did not intend to submit any new information about the project, but was cut off by McNeil, who objected to any further testimony on the application.

Asking Guldbrandsen not to go any further, Curtin polled the board members present at last week's meetings on their thoughts about how to proceed.

"I'm uncomfortable with the way we're looking at this," board member Tom Hoopes said, adding that he had expected to see something in writing from Sessler, and felt that a face-to-face meeting with Sessler was warranted given the significance of the changes in Heath's site plan.

"I'd like to see us sit down and discuss the change of use procedures as a group," Hoopes said. "I'm not comfortable with the changes that have been made."

Alternate board member David Collier agreed, stating that he felt the proposed changes constituted "a totally different project."

Board member Cindy Balcius suggested that the changes depicted on the amended plan might have impacts on traffic, drainage, and storm water management that the board will have to examine.

The changes, she added, might in fact be significant enough to warrant a new round of hearings on the original plan for the elderly housing project, let alone consideration of the workforce housing proposal.

Commenting that she and Heath had discussed the proposed change of use with planning department personnel, and that everyone had agreed at that time that an amended site plan would be the best way to proceed, Guldbrandsen said she felt it was inappropriate for the board to question that decision so far into the process.

Penney stated for the record that she had discussed the proposed change of use with Sessler, who she said recommended that the project be handled as an amended site plan.

"Last time, you took it in, chewed on it, and that's where we are," she said, adding that the discussion at last month's meeting had not left her with the impression that approval was "a done deal."

Curtin asked the board members for their thoughts on whether it would be best to deny Heath's application, and request a new site plan.

"I'm concerned about our legal standing," Hoopes said, adding that he wanted to see a "real sit-down" with Sessler before the board takes any action.

Objecting to any discussion of denying the application, Guldbrandsen re-iterated her position that the board was already following Sessler's advice.

Balcius recommended a meeting with Sessler, suggesting that there were "too many questions outstanding" with regard to the amended site plan.

The hearing process, she added, "needs to be done right and carefully, with plenty of public input."

On a motion from Curtin, the board voted unanimously to continue the hearing on Heath's proposal until Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 6 p.m., and to schedule a meeting with Sessler in the meantime.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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