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District residents prepare petition to abolish HDC

Outside consultant submits report

December 16, 2009
WOLFEBORO — The Wolfeboro Historic District Commission (HDC) finally completed and adopted new Rules of Procedure on Nov. 19, based on draft number eight prepared by Attorney Richard Sager and amended further at that meeting. This marked the completion of a major goal of the commission, achieved despite opposition and concerns expressed by many residents of the historic districts.

The HDC also held public hearings on Nov. 24 that were straightforward and generally not contentious. Beverly Woods and Seth Austen had their 8 x 12-foot woodshed approved and Robert Norton and Ruth Sexton were also approved for a replacement roof on their barn. Vice Chairman Suzanne Ryan raised objections to the proposed metal roof but the board voted to approve the plan as submitted.

However, the dissatisfaction of the district residents with Chairman Bruce Fichter and Vice Chair Ryan continued.

Request for resignations

At the Dec. 1 HDC meeting, the board was presented with a letter from a group of property owners that called for the resignation of Fichter and Ryan. The letter read in part, "it is our belief that the Historic District Commission (HDC) has become a detriment to the community based on: 1) Depriving property owners of the ability to control and enjoy their homes by imposing undocumented and artificially restrictive limitations on property improvements; 2) Imposing unreasonably long and involved approval procedures for simple changes; 3) Abusing their power by cutting off discussion of dissenting views within the commission and disrespectful treatment of property owners appearing before the commission; and 4) The resulting decline in the reputation and desirability of property within the district.

"After numerous attempts to discuss these issues – both with commission members and in public forums – it has become clear that the current HDC leadership is unwilling to reconsider their approach…"

The letter concluded "we are asking the current HDC Chairman and Vice Chairman to voluntarily resign from the commission and allow the selectmen to appoint new members that are more closely aligned with the needs and objectives of district property owners. If you truly believe in the importance of the Historic District, then this is the best method to both preserve the commission and realign its membership with the will of the people. In the event that you chose not to resign…we are prepared to submit a warrant article for the next town election calling for the dissolution of the HDC. Although this action will, if passed, remove enforcement of HDC regulations – we view this course as vastly preferable to the overly restrictive ruling and the arbitrary, capricious and disrespectful behavior of the current commission."

There was no response to this letter. The Ad Hoc group then gathered signatures for the promised warrant article calling for the abolition of the HDC. By Dec. 8 more than 200 signatures had been gathered.

HDC member appointment

Nearly 100 of those signatures were gathered by HDC Alternate Jim Ladd, who appeared before the Wolfeboro Board of Selectmen on Dec. 7 as a candidate to replace Ellen Klimm as a full member of the HDC. Ladd read a statement to selectmen where he recounted his signature-gathering efforts on the previous Friday and Saturday. "ALL of the people within whom I talked, who had seen any or part of our meetings on the local cable TV channel said, 'you don't have to say anything, I'll gladly sign,' or words to that effect." He reported 70 percent of those asked signed the petition, and that the comments he received could be summed up as follows: "We need fewer regulations. Let us decide for ourselves how our houses should look. We are responsible homeowners. We want guidance, discussion, and compromise, not dictates, and judgments. I couldn't agree more," Ladd concluded.

Selectmen had advertised for someone to replace Klimm twice, and at their Dec. 2 meeting selectmen reviewed the four applications received from the second ad. In addition to Ladd, the applicants were fellow HDC Alternate Eric Keim, new resident Richard Murray (no relation to Selectman Linda Murray) and Governor Wentworth Regional School District board member and ZBA alternate Charlene Seibel. Because Selectman Chair Dave Senecal was absent, Selectman Kristi Ginter ran the meeting. The board attempted to reach a decision, but ended up deadlocked 2-2, with Ginter and Marge Webster favoring Keim or Murray and Murray and Sarah Silk favoring Seibel. Because of the deadlock the final decision was deferred to Dec. 7, when Senecal would be back.

On Dec. 7 Webster moved to appoint Ladd and Ginter seconded. During the following discussion, Murray indicated she felt Ladd did not believe in the HDC since he was petitioning to dissolve it. Silk agreed with Murray, and then asked Ginter to step down because of her outstanding suit with the town over the HDC. Ginter refused, saying the town and Ginters had reached an agreement that was only awaiting a judge's approval. Besides, she added, a quorum was needed.

The vote to approve Ladd as a full member was 3-2, with Senecal voting in favor with Ginter and Webster.

Murray then moved to appoint Seibel (who was not present due to a conflicting school board meeting) as an alternate to replace Ladd. Silk seconded. The vote was 2-3 against. Silk asked why Seibel was not acceptable. Ginter offered to hand out a letter from former ZBA member Mark Pierce to the ZBA Chair about what Ginter termed Seibel's "blatant disregard."

Ginter moved to advertise again for alternates and Webster seconded. Silk abstained from the vote.

Consultant's report

At the Dec. 7 meeting Town Manager Dave Owen handed out copies of an 11-page report received earlier than day from consultant H. Bernard Waugh, Jr., former legal counsel to the Local Government Center. Selectmen agreed to discuss it at their next meeting on Dec. 16, which occurred after the deadline for this issue of the newspaper.

Waugh's report is based on reading Wolfeboro's zoning, draft seven of the proposed HDC rules, meeting minutes, newspaper articles and the Paul Panaccione letter of Nov. 3, plus "sampling" DVDs of four meetings. He did not meet with selectmen, the HDC or any residents.

After warning that he was "not a psychologist or political advisor" and advising that his experience "tells me these disagreements can become the seeds of entrenched personality conflicts and factionalization in a town, far out of proportion to the original dispute," Waugh focuses on legal issues and making observations.

He points out that while selectmen can decide not to reappoint an HDC member it is very difficult to remove a member, based on case law. Selectmen can appeal any HDC decision they disagree with, however.

Waugh observes that the HDC's problems "are not that out of line from those sometimes experienced by other land use board in the State." Policy disagreements are not uncommon and, worse, state law that relates to HDCs is not that clear. The HDC is trying to clarify rules after a period of lax enforcement and that in itself can cause conflict.

Waugh does recommend that anything that imposes a requirement upon residents be reviewed at public hearings before adoption – even forms. He advises removing definitions from the rules and procedures (which the HDC did in draft eight) and continue to work on actual regulations (as opposed to rules and procedures). He is also critical of individual members making "pronouncements" that sound like decisions, yet are not subject to vote by the board as a whole. Finally he advises the board that the 45-day time limit on considering applications begins when the application is filed, not when the board accepts it as complete.

Otherwise Waugh gives specific helpful advice about to conduct a meeting and concludes "I do not see the Wolfeboro Historic District Commission as fundamentally 'broken.'" "I do find some validity to the claim of a lack of courtesy and respect among HDC members and the public," he adds, while claiming that he is no more qualified than anyone else to judge that.

Waugh ends his report offering to meet with the HDC and selectmen to go over the report, but does not offer to serve as a mediator, a service Selectman Murray had requested.

The Dec. 17 meeting of the HDC has been cancelled. The next meeting will be on Jan. 5 at the Community Center.

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