December 30, 2010By KAYTI BURT
In the spirit of end-of-year reflection, we have put together a list of the stories we felt dominated the news this year – whether it was that story that seemed to keep popping up week after week, or that story that had a short, but heated run. Some of these stories are in their infancies, some are still going on, and some came to a head this year after years of controversy. However, all will live on, if not in their repercussions, then in the collective memory of the community.
Several ongoing disputes kept the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) and Planning Board busy this year, highlighting people's differing positions on what kind of development is in the best interest of the town.
Herb Lahout's plan to expand his apartment complex on Joe Lahout Lane met with opposition from abutters from the very beginning when Lahout presented his first application to the boards in April. Since then, Lahout's plan – or variations of it – have been in and out of the boards with the ZBA both approving a special exception for multi-unit housing where they are not zoned and denying a special variance for setbacks. This forced Lahout to alter his plan last month. He is moving forward, alteration of terrain permit in hand, only the Planning Board's decision standing in his way.
Lahout's plan would add 56 new housing units to the 79 already in place on the 29-acre development. Lahout insists the development will fill the need for senior transitional housing with its proximity to downtown, close parking, and well-lit grounds. He says the project will bring money into the community, both through the continuations of his pledge to use local subcontractors and through a boost to the town's tax base.
Abutters – including the closest to the development, Selectman Marghie Seymour – argue that the development has already changed the nature of their rural neighborhood, and will continue to do so. Specific issues include light and noise pollution, well trouble, and increased traffic. They insist that Lahout has been dishonest in his dealings with them, and promised not to expand further after his last expansion – a claim Lahout disputes. Ultimately, they argue that the section of town is not zoned for it, and believe their rights as property owners are not being protected. Seymour argues this could eventually lead to a hit to the town's tax base – if property owners feel they are not protected, they will find an area where they are.
The dispute over the Highland Croft development strikes similar issues. What was once the location a historic lodge is now the site of a potential retail center. The lodge burned down in 2008, and owner Richard Gould, of Houston Littleton, LLC, looks towards commercial development to make a profit on the property. In his way: several abutters who argue the project could prove detrimental to town and regional water supplies and property values, and prove a noise, dust, light, vibration, traffic, and aesthetics nuisance.
Gould's plan is to bring down the knoll 70 feet, removing up to 1.5 million cubic yards of loam, clay, sand, gravel, and ledge, which would perhaps make it more attractive to potential buyers. The project could take at least five years to complete.
Gould was notified he would need an excavation permit for the blasting in February, and the Planning Board eventually approved it in June. However, an appeal from the abutters that would have brought the town to court persuaded the Planning Board to rehear the project, factoring in the potential regional impact of the project. The appeal is set for Jan. 4.
The ZBA approved a special exception for the blasting in June and again at a rehearing in September; its decision is being appealed by abutters.
These two cases paint a divisive picture of what has always been a sensitive issue in the North Country: how to develop. Should Gould and Lahout, who rightfully bought their properties, be able to do with them what they wish or are the spirit of town zoning ordinances – and the rights of surrounding property owners – being violated when municipal boards make exceptions for larger, moneymaking developments? Is this a case of David vs. Goliath, or a case of people preventing progress? Ask different people and you will get different answers, but this is not the first dispute of its kind, and it will be far from the last.
Department of Environmental Services Grants Expansion to Bethlehem Landfill
It is a dispute that has been going on not just years, but decades. The Trudeau Road landfill, currently operated by North Country Environmental Services, a subsidiary of Casella Waste Systems, of Rutland, Vt., has been collecting waste – and dividing townspeople – since its inception in 1976 as a small town dump, but it came to a head this year when New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services (DES) approved an expansion that will extend the landfill's life by another ten years.
The landfill is to receive an additional 1.5 million cubic yards of material from the application, which will be contained within the existing footprint of the landfill by large berms to be built along the edges of portions of the current landfill. The company has to expand upward because it is forbidden from expanding outside the current 51-acre footprint (37 acres of which is actually used for holding waste) by a town zoning ordinance forbidding further expansion.
The town voted not to appeal the decision (though a group of residents has), but they remain legally entangled with NCES through a declaratory judgment action initiated by NCES in 2001, and a zoning enforcement action initiated by the town last year. Both center around the issue of whether NCES can legally place operations relevant to the landfill outside of the 51-acre footprint. The legal fees associated with NCES were a factor in the town going over budget this year.
Overexpended budgets are only one of the many reasons opponents to the project list for their continued opposition. However, the DES' approval is a big win for NCES and – barring any changes due to appeal – ensures the fate of Bethlehem and the fate of the landfill will be entwined for at least another decade. It remains up to municipal officials, and the voters, how entwined they will be.
Northern Pass project breaks
Though the story of the 140-foot high voltage transmission line running smack dab through the North Country broke late in the year, its potential impact on the region necessitates a spot on this list.
Northeast Utilities, including subsidiary Public Service of New Hampshire, and NSTAR have teamed up with Canadian company Hydro-Quebec to bring low-cost power from Quebec, down through the North Country, to a converter station in Franklin.
Response to the project has been largely negative.
Few can find positives in a project that has the potential to plummet property values and decimate tourism, yet the project is still in its infancy and many North Country residents are reserving judgment until they know more about the project. Additional information and public forums are promised as the Northern Pass project moves through the permitting process.
Organized opposition has formed in Bury the Northern Pass, a Grafton Country-based group, and Stop the Northern Pass, a Coos County-based group. The groups have encouraged those against the project to petition as interveners in the Presidential permitting process, an approval necessary for project crossing international borders, and to petition warrant articles at town meetings that formally announce communities' opposition to the project.
For those who have already come firmly down against the project, the question remains: if the region bands together in opposition, will it make a difference? These groups seem passionate enough to find out.
Career and Technical Center/Junior High Construction
In a year defined by few infrastructure projects, especially compared to preceding years, the construction of Littleton's Career and Technical Center (CTC) and new middle school stands out.
Approved by the voters in March after being voted down in 2009, the $10.8 million project, of which the town will only have to pay $2.2 million due to state reimbursement, broke ground in August following a six-month planning period. The project is slated for completion next September.
Construction plans include demolishing the former CTC and stacking a new CTC and middle school on top of one another to save space. The new structure, built on High Street on the site of a former parking lot and house, will replace the Hugh Gallen Career and Technical Center and the Daisy Bronson Middle School.
The former CTC's roof is beyond repair, and has had water leakage problems for years. Daisy Bronson is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both schools have been targeted for years as structures in need of repair or replacement. And now they will be.
A series of selectmen blunders were dragged to the forefront of town politics in April, made more dramatic by a series of lengthy meetings, their immediate succession, and the fact that no selectman was left untarnished. The issues highlighted the pressure applied to municipal officials and the standards to which they are measured – at times, forcibly.
The first of the selectmen stumbles came when newly elected Marghie Seymour made a comment about low income housing and how people thought a boatload of Haitians would show up if low income housing were built. Lahout, who was not at the meeting when the comment was made, went on a crusade, asking for Seymour's resignation not once, but twice at the following week's meeting, which drew 100 people and lasted 4.5 hours. Seymour apologized for her words, saying that she had not intended to hurt anyone's feelings, and made no move to resign.
The following week's meeting was again packed, boasting standing room only in the Community House Annex. This time, it was Chairman Ron Bolt and Ed Boynton's turn to face public outcry.
Following the previous week's meeting, Bolt had sent out an email, presumably intended for Schuyler Sweet, apologizing for not following through on an earlier promise that Sweet would not have to serve on the budget committee with Brien Ward. Sweet was appointed and Ward reappointed to the budget committee at the previous week's meeting. After seeing the email, Boynton, deciding Bolt had acted if not illegally, than unethically, contacted the Attorney General, asking him to launch an investigation of Bolt for allegedly promising appointments to town committees without the knowledge of the rest of the board.
Some crucified Bolt, upset at an apparent lack of transparency on his part. Others, called out Boynton for not going through proper channels by asking Bolt or Town Manager Chuck Connell about the email before contacting the Attorney General. Ultimately, the town agreed to move forward for the good of the community and the Attorney General found no cause to launch an investigation.
After five years of arguing over the value of the Moore Dam hydroelectric facility on Route 18, Owner TransCanada and the town of Littleton came to an agreement in March that left Littleton's taxpayers with a $6.3 million bill to foot.
In 2006, Littleton assessed Moore Dam at a value of $239 million, up from its previous assessed value of $105 million. TransCanada filed for an abatement and sued the town, claiming that the value was actually closer to $134 million. The two parties settled at a value of $177 million.
Though the huge financial hit has been looming since the settlement, taxpayers have still not seen the impact of the $6.3 million bond that was used to pay the tax abatement to TransCanada. The town will pay the first of the bond payments, roughly $580,000 in principal and interest, next year. This represents a huge jump in debt services, which plays a crucial part in determining the town tax rate. In an attempt to keep the town tax rate down, selectmen have had to cut elsewhere in the budget. Next year is most likely the first of many years the TransCanada settlement will necessitate sacrifices in town services.
There were many other stories that almost made the cut for top story of the year. The construction of the new 5,000-foot long Mittersill chairlift at Cannon Mountain began in August and is set to be completed sometime in the coming weeks. The $2.9 million chairlift will be part of the Mittersill slopes. Acquired in 2009 as part of a land swap with the federal government, Mittersill added 50 percent more skiing terrain to Cannon.
Another runner-up was the identification of Littleton High School (LHS) as one of the dozen lowest-performing schools, based on standardized math and reading test results. Though the school could have received grant money in exchange for making reforms, the district eventually convinced the Department of Education to take LHS off the list.
The Parker Village fire that left 21 residents homeless in January was also a contender. The community came together following the fire, creating a Facebook page that served as a way for people to express their support and offer their assistance.
The Supreme Court ruling allowing for the construction of the Grafton County Jail and the subsequent commencement of construction was our final runner-up. Residents who opposed the cost and size of the project during a bad economy were silenced with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the county.