ROCKINGHAM >> In an effort to stop the proposed Liberty Mill Justice project, the Planning Commission received a petition with a specific request.
The voter petition asked for a change in the Riverfront 14 Zoning bylaws, which would outlaw the construction of the justice center that Windham County Sheriff, Keith Clark has proposed to build in town. The Planning Commission's next step is to write a report that will go to the Selectboard, detailing the petition along with its recommendations. However members of the commission went back and forth with each other and the petition authors at the meeting on Wednesday, Feb.10.
"When I look at this I think we have two big hurdles we need to get over; one is looking at our technical review of the petition and determine as a board what we want to do with that technical review and what we want to forward out of that technical review," said Alan LaCombe, Chair of the Rockingham Planning Commission. "And then the second thing that I see is what recommendations and comments we have to forward along with a proposed amendment."
The Liberty Mill Justice Center is a proposed multi-million-dollar criminal detainee/resource facility that would be located at the village's former Liberty Mill, also known as the Chemco building. The space would hold 155 beds — 120 secured for either federal or state male detainees, 20 for female detainees at either the state or federal level and 35 for those that are transitioning out or that are eligible for the electronic monitoring program. The two-story building would be "building secure" rather than "site secure," which means no barbed fencing, guard tower, floodlights or large open spaces surrounding the building. Instead, security would be held within all or a portion of the building.
It was not so much the proposal of the facility that irked citizens, but it was rather that they felt their input was shut out by Sheriff Clark. At one of his initial public meetings, in Nov. Clark said, "I'm not convinced at this point, or are we obligated to take it to a town vote." Public comments followed that they felt the project was being "shoved down their throats."
Later at a public hearing in December, Clark was asked if he would delay the project until the voters had an opportunity to speak on this matter; he answered that he would not. His reasoning against a delay was due to his fear of increased project costs.
Those feelings of exclusion have carried on to February and a local group, Rockingham For Progress is speaking out about those concerns and its members were the individuals who brought about this petition. RFP consists of five core members: Ellen Kreitmeier, Merrit Schnipper, Bonnie North, Charlie Hunter and Douglass Anarino — all residents of Bellows Falls and Westminster.
Aside from the a few technical changes for the town's bylaws, RFP has asked that a "municipality" be redefined. Their suggested definition asks that the definition exclude, "any facility in which more than eighteen (18) people are incarcerated or held for short-term psychological evaluation at any time or in which any person or persons are incarcerated for seven (7) or more consecutive days or held for short-term psychological evaluation for thirty (30) or more consecutive days."
The petition received the required amount of signatures (5 percent of Rockingham's registered voters) in order that it be verified by the town clerk. Now that it has been officially presented to the Planning Commission, the members of the commission are required to write a report to the Selectboard along with a recommendation of what should be done with the proposed amendment. The Planning Commission has scheduled to do that Monday, Feb. 15. Once their report and recommendations have been written, they will hold a public hearing on March 2 to present what they have to citizens before it goes to the Selectboard. After the public hearing is held, a revised report will be written and will go before the Selectboard. Then the Selectboard will have to hold its own public hearing process.
The twist is that zoning bylaw changes require an Australian ballot. According to Rockingham's Zoning administrator, Charles Wise Jr., there is something called an interim bylaw where the legislative body of the municipality can vote it in, which has the same effect as a zoning bylaw.
"I think that's the spirit of the petition, if you will, wanting to see it end quickly and wanting us to be responsive," said Wise.
According to Wise, what this means is that when the Selectboard holds its own public hearing, it may vote the amendment in as an interim bylaw (good for two years) or vote to pass the amendment onto the voters. When there is a town vote, it depends on a myriad of factors: Is there a vote already scheduled? Is/Are there another article that requires a town vote and so these can all be combined and a vote scheduled as soon as possible and given the urgency of the petition, schedule a vote as soon as possible
Their was some hesitancy shown among the members of the board in what power they have in this petition and what might happen down the line when the state steps in.
"I know we've received input, three different opinions related to the proposed amendment, each of which has different opinions on different issues of the legality of petition," said LaCombe. "I think they're worth discussing and I think probably worth putting in comments that we provide to the Selectboard."
RFP member Schnipper, who is also a litigation attorney, felt that the board should not hold back because of the uncertainty of the legality process that lies ahead.
"The way I think about it when I think about these citizen petition aspects of the state statute and way you get a certain amount of people behind a proposal, it gives them a direct avenue to enactment because of the importance of local democracy to the process," said Schnipper. "I think it would be very unwise for either this board or the Selectboard to ultimately decide to deny the amendment and not enactment because of fears of what might happen in a legal challenge."
The Planning Commission responded to Schnipper's lobbying and said that their role was to write a recommendation, not to make any binding decisions.
Planning Commission member Kath Martin said she believes their role is to consider whether the proposed changes for the bylaws "further the planning of land use in Rockingham and Bellows Falls." She refuted that their job is not to decide whether the rules they set forth are going to be legally binding into the future or not, as long as they don't do something "egregious."
"I don't think we're here to discuss whether we think it's going to pass muster into the future, all kinds of things can change," said Martin.
Another member of the Planning Commission, Patrick Monya, noted that they have asked for a legal review to receive an opinion of whether they believe it would pass.
"That's just a normal course of action that we're going to take," said Monya.
Monya added that they want to make sure they are planning for the future of the town the way the townspeople want.
About an hour into the meeting board members speculated what could happen if the suggested definition of a municipality was enacted.
"By changing the definition, I want to be perfectly clear this is not only changing the definition for this zone, but this is changing that particular definition for all zones and as I read this, basically this is saying that that sort of facility is not permitted anywhere in town," said LaCombe.
The Planning Commission will meet Monday, Feb. 15 to create a report along with their recommendations about the voter petition regarding the proposed Riverfront 14 Zoning bylaw changes. The report with recommendations will be presented at a public hearing on March 2 with time and location to be announced.