Thursday November 15, 2012

WALPOLE, N.H. -- The town’s planning board approve a controversial site plan review Tuesday despite vocal opposition from local residents.

A few dozen citizens showed up at Walpole Town Hall out of curiosity over a new application for a previously proposed building alteration from Avanru Development Group. The group had been forced to submit a second application because its members decided to alter the review plan from 48 two-bedroom units to 60 one-bedroom units and seven two-bedroom units within an approved and permitted building.

Many townspeople are against the development, believing it is inappropriate for Walpole. The planning board, nevertheless, approved of the application by a 4-3 vote at Tuesday’s meeting. James Aldrich, Peter Kinney, Henry Fletcher and Selectmen Jamie Teague voted in favor of the plan while Eric Merklein, Vice Chairman Bob Miller and Chairman Jeff Miller voted against it.

Jeff Miller said he believes the plan, set for near Tractor Supply Company along Route 12, is not a good fit for the town.

Moments before the vote, Merklein said this was the most important decision the planning board would make for a long time and said approval could be detrimental to the town. The final vote was met with jeers, and even some swear words, from members of the audience.

As everyone was filing out of town hall, a woman approached Jack Franks, one of Avanru’s principal partners, and voiced her displeasure with the group’s plan.

"I’m not going to shake your hand. I told you a long time ago you should have left," she told him. "We don’t need this. You have children in this town. You should know better."

Franks told her she was entitled to her opinion. He told the Reformer he was relieved the vote was decided in his favor.

"The board members tonight applied not only common sense but law and looked at this from a legal perspective. We meet the requirements," he said. "I certainly am aware of everyone’s concerns in the community about this but this isn’t without a great deal of effort, a great deal of work and a great deal of research. We know what the data says and we wouldn’t be investing this kind of money into a project that’s going to fail."

Avanru partners, including architect Jedd Pellerin, attended the meeting along with attorney Gary Kinyon.

The attorney, who works out of Keene, said there is no proposed change in the use of the property or the footprint. Jeff Miller stated, however, that the board still thought a new application was appropriate.

The first question of the public hearing was asked by a woman who wondered why the alterations were being referred to as "minor" when the plan shifted from a condominium to a rental project with decreased square footage per apartment.

"My concern would be not that the footprint of the project is less but that in the same footprint, you’re putting so many more apartment complexes," she said before addressing Kinyon. "And I’m also curious how, counsel, you came up with the idea that there would be a lesser number of occupants, given the fact that we have more apartments."

Pellegrin responded to the question and said there is a reduction in the number of beds available. Kinyon said the number of potential occupants went from 192 to about 148.

Pellegrin said the space would be age-restricted and the woman asked if Avanru really thinks four elderly people can fit in one two-bedroom apartment.

"There’s also the potential there to have a couple and their elder parents. There’s potential for senior couples with each (having) a live-in caregiver there," he replied. "There is the potential for greater occupants in the previous decision than there is the newly-proposed one."

Some townspeople said they hoped the units would be reserved for people 55 or older but aren’t sure if there are enough individuals in Walpole that even meet that criteria. Many in attendance said they think investments should be made in the town’s youth.

Ralph Murray stood up in the audience to identify himself and said he is an abutter to the property. He asked Avanru’s partners to keep the benefit of Walpole in mind when they build and his statement was met with applause from the crowd.

After the meeting, Murray told the Reformer he wasn’t at all surprised by the decision because the plan seemed to have the board’s support from the get-go. He said, however, that he wishes more members of the public had shown up at previous public hearings on the matter.

Teague, the Walpole Selectboard’s representative to the planning board, voiced the same sentiment in an address to end the hearing.

"I have listened to all of you tonight and I have a couple of things to say," she read. "I’m torn. I don’t like standing up here and having 1 percent of my population show up and speak their hearts. I’d really like to know where the rest of the population that are so vehemently against this project are. I do try to listen and being a selectperson and sitting on this board sometimes can be difficult.

"What I’m saying is, I’ve heard you. You may not be happy with my decision and I can appreciate that," she continued. "And I would urge you that if you’re not happy with the direction that your boards are taking, run for office. Please."

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.