Thursday December 20, 2012

WALPOLE, N.H. -- A group of 22 citizens has decided to challenge what it feels was improper procedure by the Walpole Planning Board last month before approving the largest housing development in town history.

The residents have filed a lawsuit against the town in Cheshire Superior Court, objecting to the approval of a project proposed by the Avanru Development Group of Walpole. The controversial vote came at a Planning Board meeting at Walpole Town Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 13. After much discussion the board approved Avanru’s application by a 4-3 vote.

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 33,000-square-foot apartment complex. It would be constructed behind Tractor Supply Company on Route 12 and intended for people 55 years or older.

Many townspeople are against the development, believing it is inappropriate for Walpole. The concerned group of citizens wants the court to invalidate the board’s decision, which gave the nod to construction.

Jack Pratt is a member of the group that filed the suit and feels Avanru pulled a "bait-and-switch" on the town. He said Avanru’s original plan called for condominiums for individuals 55 and older who will own them but has since changed to apartments for rent for almost anyone. He said townspeople support the idea of housing for people 55 or older but oppose a development a person of any age can move in to.

Pratt said it is now up to the town to reply to the suit.

He said a minimum age requirement of at least 55 would limit the resident count to about 96, with most likely a few less once widows and widowers are factored in. Pratt said there would be very few vehicles belonging to the tenants under these circumstances but increasing the number to 67 and allowing young couples to live there would add dozens of cars to the equation. Some townspeople are not sure if there are enough individuals in Walpole that even meet that criteria of being at least 55 years old.

The group, Pratt said, also believes the lack of an age requirement would invite the potential for 40 or so children to live in a development with no playground. He said this would force youngsters to ride their bicycles along a dangerous road past the Shaw’s supermarket to Whitcomb Park.

"It’s an accident waiting to happen," he said in a telephone interview.

Pratt also said he thinks the lot behind Tractor Supply would be a horrible location for the development and the town gave Avanru a building permit before a public hearing was held.

The residents group says Section IV of the Town of Walpole Site Plan Review Regulations requires site plan approval " ... before any construction, land clearing, building development or change is begun and before any permit for the erection of any building or authorization for development on such site shall be granted ..."

The disgruntled citizens also allege Jamie Teague, the Board of Selectman’s representative to the planning board, should have known the selectmen had no authority to issue the permit. The suit also says Teague exhibited bias in favor of Avanru’s application.

Planning Board Chairman Jeff Miller opposes the development and voted against it last month. Despite his objection, however, he is not taking part in the lawsuit.

"The way I look at it is, I have already had my chance as chairman of the board," he told the Reformer. "I made my peace and said my opinion."

He said he respects that the majority of his board voted to approve the application.

Jack Franks, Avanru’s president and CEO, said the notion that his group has done anything dishonest is untrue. He said there is no difference, according to New Hampshire state statutes, between apartments for rent and condos for purchase.

"There is a select group of individuals that have the mindset, the thought process, that this is going to be something other than 55-plus housing -- and it’s not," he told the Reformer. "They don’t want any growth. They’re opposed to any and all growth. They’d prefer it to stay a cornfield at (Avanru’s) expense."

Franks said his group already has several millions of dollars tied up in land purchases for the development.

He said it is ironic that the same people who claim to care about Walpole and its people do not want a business/housing development to be built.

"These are the people who pride themselves on being champions of the poor, the elderly and the disadvantaged but then throw their arms up and say, ‘Not in my backyard,’" Franks said. "It’s beyond heart-wrenching. It’s disgusting."

He called the lawsuit a frivolous and disappointing one that has created "a sad situation."

Franks said the four planning board members that voted to approve the development voted with the law. James Aldrich, Peter Kinney, Henry Fletcher and Teague voted in favor of the plan while Eric Merklein, Chairman Miller and Vice Chairman Bob Miller voted against it.

The final vote was met with jeers, and even some curse words, from members of the audience last month.

Gary Kinyon, an Keene-based attorney representing Avanru, said last month there is no proposed change in the use of the property or the footprint. Chairman Miller stated, however, that the board still thought a new application was appropriate.

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