Residents share concerns over new enforcement policies and tax exceptions at Gorham's Annual Town Meeting

By Kirstan Knowlton

GORHAM — Originally scheduled for Tuesday, heavy snow and blizzard like conditions forced the town to postpone its annual town meeting until Friday. With fewer than 100 residents in attendance, opinions still ran strong when it came to topics like code enforcement and tax exception.

One of the biggest topics for contention started right out of the gate with Warrant Article No. 3., which proposed that the town adopt the provisions of RSA 48-A Housing Standards.

According to the warrant, provisions would be in place to insure that all dwellings in the Town of Gorham are kept fit for human habitation and would allow the municipality to establish an ordinance to enforce the standard under the provisions of RSA 48-A:3, II.

During public comment, resident Jay Holmes expressed concerns over creating policies that could give the town control over resident’s private property. Budget committee member Robert Demers, also agreed, saying that it should be up to the landowners to take care of their property without specific enforcement from the town.

“It’s up to the landowners, we shouldn’t support it,” said Demers.

Town Manager Robin Frost explained that currently the town did not have anything in place specifically dealing with single-family dwellings. The article, if approved, would create a way for the town to address excessive trash build up and other hazards that would pose a risk to neighbors.

The article was in response to several complaints that had been made about certain properties, and without specific provisions in place, beyond sending letters recommending that action be taken; the town’s hands were basically tied.

Resident William Scolere spoke about his personal experience with a neighboring property that had been neglected and, even after several attempts by the town to correct the situation, there had been little to no improvements.

“It’s my neighbor Bob Demers, and I’d like some teeth to do something about it,” said Scolere.

Warrant Article No. 3 passed with the majority of the vote.

Next on the warrant, Article No. 4, generated some discussion as well, with Budget Chair Michael Waddell looking for clarification about who would be eligible for the tax exemption and if there would be a loss in tax revenue.

The article would provide commercial and industrial property owners an exemption on new construction or renovations. The property owner would pay full taxes on the existing structure — the exemption would apply only to the value of new construction.

The exemption will be for five years and would decrease every year. The first year the exemption would cover 90 percent of new valuation, 75 percent the second year, 50 percent for the third year, 25 percent for the fourth year and 10 percent for the fifth and final year. Subsequent years will be assessed at the full rate.

Frost explained that the proposed article was taken directly from state law, and if passed it would not generate a loss in tax income, because the exemption only applied to tax gains that would be created based on the renovations made to the property.

The initial vote to pass the article was too close to call with just a show of hands, and an official standing count was taken. The article passed 36 to 32.

The budget for the general municipal operations as presented in Warrant Article No. 9 for $3,926,467 received a request by Waddell to be amended to a lower amount of $3,850,467.

The proposal called for the removal of $40,000, which was set aside in the event that the town manager form of government was eliminated, and $36,000, which needed to placed back into the Recreation Revolving Fund.

Selectmen Patrick Lefebvre also made a motion to designate a portion of the shifted funds to cover the First Impressions Study through the University of New Hampshire and to hire someone part-time for economic development.

A short discussion was had on the timeliness of Lefebvre’s proposal, and when it came to the final vote, Lefebvre’s motion was not supported, with Waddell’s reallocation of funds passed as amended.

During the meeting, residents also questioned the plan to repair and pave roads, especially areas out in the Stony Brook development.

Waddell cited a figure of $3 million to cover all 20 miles of road within town, and while he supported the $100,000 addition to the Road Resurfacing Fund he acknowledged that there needed to be other options.

“It’s a work in progress for the board of selectmen,” said Waddell.

The remainder of the warrant articles was passed with little discussion or no discussion, and the meeting adjourned around 9:30 p.m. The 2016 annual report is available online by going to www.gorhamnh.org.

Milan voters want exclusive tuition agreement with Berlin school

By Barbara Tetreault

MILAN — At the annual school meeting last week, Milan residents voted to dissolve the Berlin-Milan AREA Agreement in favor of an exclusive tuition agreement with the Berlin School District. Berlin city council must now approve both the withdrawal plan and the exclusive tuition agreement. If the city agrees, the tuition agreement would take effect on July 1, 2018, when the current AREA agreement expires. It would run for three years.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Bousquet explained that the AREA agreement requires Milan to send all students in grades 7-12 to the Berlin School District. Under the agreement, the Berlin school district guarantees the Milan students a place.

Parents can send their children to a different public school only under two criteria: 1) that it is in the best interest of the child or 2) denying the request would constitute an educational hardship. Berlin and Milan school boards must approve the decision.

The exclusive tuition agreement would give parents the option to send their child to a different public school with the approval of the Milan school board. The parents would not have to meet special criteria. The Milan school district will only provide transportation for students attending the Berlin middle and high schools. Parents sending children to other public schools would be required to provide transportation.

A motion that would make parents responsible for tuition costs above Berlin School District rate was defeated. A legal opinion provided by Attorney Barbara Loughman said it is unclear if a school board could require the sending parent to pay the different in tuition between Berlin School District and an unassigned school.

Bousquet said there was an in-depth discussion on the issue at the annual school meeting and residents asked a lot of good questions.

“It was a good back-and-forth,” he said.

Residents voted at the March 2016 annual school meeting to set up a Milan/Berlin Withdrawal Study Committee.

Milan School Board members Peter Donovan and Andrew Mullins served as co-chairs of the committee, which approved the plan presented at the school meeting last week. Also serving on the committee were Milan Selectmen Richard Lamontagne and Randy Fortin, Berlin School Board members Nicole Plourde and Scott Losier, and Bousquet.

Bob Chapman Just “Got Pulled In” - And Found Himself Owning The Former Groveton Mil

By Christopher Jensen

InDepthNH.org
GROVETON — Sometimes stuff just happens. Like you wind up owning a former paper mill in the North Country.
Bob Chapman didn’t plan on being the proprietor of the shuttered mill in Groveton, a cluster of about 1,100 people a little north of Lancaster.
Nor did he see himself playing a key role in bringing manufacturing jobs back to the hard-luck town.
But in January NSA Industries LLC of Vermont located at the industrial park owned by Chapman. By next month it expects to have 45 employees, says James Moroney, its chief executive officer.
To a large extent the North Country has resigned itself to an economic future centered around tourism, so the return of those manufacturing jobs was a surprise.
As was Chapman’s involvement.
“I got pulled in,” says the 60-year-old who came to the North Country almost four decades ago from Maine and opened a successful salvage business in Milan.
That happened bit by costly bit, as Chapman was caught up in a series of events beginning in 2011 with a $100,000 loan to a businessman who promptly died.
Now, he says, he’s invested about $15 million including labor and an incredible amount of wear and tear on machinery during the massive cleanup required to make the site of the former mill suitable for businesses.
“I never, ever thought I would put that kind of money in a project,” he says. “But as we were going, it got deeper and we hit another hurdle and another hurdle and I am going, ‘My God.’”
The beginning
The Wausau paper mill closed at the end of 2007, its owners unable to cope with foreign competition. With about 300 employees, it had an annual payroll of about $13 million. Its closing crushed Groveton’s economy and to a large extent its hope for the future.
Shortly after that, Chapman and a handful of other businessmen started meeting to see whether they could buy the mill and find a company to reopen it.
But in 2011 a Bath entrepreneur, Charles Diamond, beat them to it. He wanted to turn it into a “Sustainable Technology Manufacturing, Research and Education Center.”
Chapman agreed to loan Diamond $100,000 for a down payment to seal the deal while Diamond pulled together the rest of the money. It seemed like a safe loan, but Chapman wasn’t considering mortality. Diamond became ill and died within a month.
It was Chapman’s bad luck that Diamond had given the $100,000 as a non-refundable deposit to the mill’s owner, Jerry Epstein, a businessman from New Jersey. Epstein told InDepthNH.org that he offered to sell the properly to Chapman.
Chapman wasn’t interested.
“There was a lot of asbestos, a lot of debris,” Chapman says. “It was too much of a gamble to try and do all that.”
So, he wrote off that $100,000, describing it with a small shoulder shrug as “a piece of hard luck.”
Getting In Deeper
Instead, in 2012 the site was sold to Green Steel LLC of Scottsdale, Arizona, which demolished some buildings so it could salvage material such as steel. But Green Steel wasn’t happy with the work done by its demolition company.
So, in 2013 it hired Chapman to clean up the site. Chapman didn’t know it, but as his machines were sorting through the mess he was chugging towards ownership.
In 2014, it was clear to Chapman that Green Steel couldn’t pay his bill.
“It was in the millions they owed me,” he says. “How do you get your money back? The best way was get it in land and then you know you’ve got it.”
So, he wrote off the debt to Green Steel and became an owner.
Friends and family thought it was a mistake. “Everybody thought it was a bad move,” he says.
But Chapman figured he didn’t have a choice. “If I hadn’t made a deal on the land I had the chance of losing all of it,” he says. “I was getting in deeper and deeper.”
He saw his fiscal salvation in creating an industrial park. But what he owned was an apocalyptic jumble of debris left by the previous demolition company. And, the former mill site had neither water nor a sewage system.
He needed more money. So, he began borrowing from his other businesses, which included the salvage yard, a demolition company and a container business.
“I jeopardized all of them. That was a lot of money to pull out and put into a project,” he says.
What struck some in the North Country was that Chapman wasn’t from Groveton. This wasn’t the classic case of a local guy trying to help his hometown.
When Jim Tierney, Jr., who was then a selectman, heard that Bob Chapman purchased the mill his reaction was: who is that?
“I really didn’t know who he was,” Tierney says.
But Chapman’s action didn’t surprise Barry Normandeau, a businessman from the North Country who knows Chapman. He says Chapman figured Groveton was in his backyard, so he had to help.
He describes Chapman as a workaholic who still uses a flip phone and is “very genuine, easy to talk to about anything. He knows everybody. It is amazing who he knows.”
And it didn’t surprise Benoit Lamontagne, a state economic development official in the North Country.
“He’s a guy with a huge heart who wants to help the North Country and believes in doing good things,” says Lamontagne.
Such benevolence aside, Chapman had to move forward to have any hope of recouping his investments. But there was something else in the mix.
“Once I saw the town was in desperate need of jobs, it was easier to come in and go for it. You know I wanted to prove to them I could bring the jobs there and I wanted to prove to them I wasn’t a quitter,” he says.
He says he was also encouraged because state officials, including those from the Department of Resources and Economic Development, were eager to help.
“They chase businesses to bring them and that is what pushed my interest to helping out,” he says. “Ray Burton was a good friend of mine and I must say (Executive Councilor) Joe Kenney is doing a good job of filling his shoes.”
And Chapman figured that the site had one important advantage: the ability to tap into a natural gas line and offer low-cost energy to tenants.
“The gas is going to be the key,” he says.
As the site was getting cleaned up, Mike Stirling, who manages the industrial park, began showing it to potential tenants, but they wanted a facility with water and a sewage system and that would be expensive.
Whether that problem could be solved came down to Groveton’s faith in Chapman and Stirling. In particular, the issue was whether the town would borrow $400,000 so it could seek an additional $600,000 in federal funds to install the water and sewer.
But if Chapman and Stirling couldn’t attract any new businesses the fiscally stressed town would still have to pay off the loan.
That vote, Chapman remembers, was crucial.
“If the public stood behind the project, then the project was safe,” he says. “Otherwise there’s no need to keep dumping in millions.”
It passed by roughly a five-to-one margin. The town got the federal funds.
And that led to NSA Industries setting up in Groveton.
For Chapman, getting that first tenant was enormous.
“The cost is done, so that is the blessing,” says Chapman. “We have money coming in.”
And Stirling and state officials are trying to persuade other companies to locate there although they decline to provide any details citing non-disclosure agreements.
It’s taken a long time, but Chapman says a key part of his business philosophy has always been patience.
Tierney, who left the Groveton select board in March, says staying power is why Chapman succeeded while other owners failed.
“He was willing to invest the time and money and the energy. Whereas other companies I don’t think were,” he says.
“They were more looking for a return for their investors. And I don’t think their investors were necessarily willing to wait the length of time that Bob was willing to work at it.”

Snowmobiler used flashlight to signal for help

ERROL — A Berlin man used his flashlight to signal for help when his snowmobile crashed on Lake Umbagog Saturday night, injuring him.

Fish and Game reported Keith Filteau, 29, was returning to his family’s camp after getting fuel in Errol when his snowmobile struck a plowed embankment where a bob house had been on the snow covered lake. The impact of the crash ejected Filteau off the machine. Using a flashlight as a beacon, Filteau summoned help from family members at the camp. A member of his family called 911 for help.

At the time the call was received around 7:30 p.m., the Errol Fire and Rescue was on a call for another snowmobile crash in the unincorporated place of Atkinson and Gilmanton Academy, a significant distance away. As a result, a mutual aid call was made and rescuers from the Colebrook Fire Department and 45th Parallel EMS responded as did Fish and Game and N.H. State Police — all coming a significant distance.

Filteau was ultimately transported by 45th Parallel EMS to Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries.

Fish and Game conservation officers credited the Filteau family with having an emergency plan in place. They knew the route Filteau was taking and the time he should return. His family was watching for him and so observed his SOS distress signal. Filteau was snowmobiling alone and Fish and Game said if family had not been paying attention and seen his distress signal, he would not have been discovered for a long time.

Authorities believe speed and unforeseen hazards on the lake were the chief contributing causes of this crash. Filteau was wearing a helmet and eye protection at the time of the crash and alcohol was determined to not be a factor.