Local control at heart of Tamworth debate


Members of the nonprofit group Focus:Tamworth packed a Senate Transportation Committee hearing earlier this month to voice their opinion about a bill its members hope rescues their hard-won racetrack ordinance from a 2004 legislative end-run supported by owners of a proposed Le Mans-style sports car track. If they have their way, House Bill 90, which passed the House by a 273-76 vote, would undo the 2004 law that exempts “private driving instruction and exhibition facilities” from municipal oversight, including the planned track in Tamworth. Without the 2005 enabling statute, both sides agree the Tamworth racetrack rules - which would be a big stumbling block to developers of the track — are void. Club Motorsports’ developers convinced lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 458 last year, a measure that made Tamworth’s ordinance unenforceable. The bill sailed through both houses on the consent agenda without triggering a fight from Focus:Tamworth and its 300 members. The town lacks a comprehensive zoning ordinance to fall back on. Rep. Harry Merrow, R-Ossipee, said the issue is one of local control. “The state should not dictate what a town can or can’t do,” he said. “The Legislature can’t get involved every time a developer wants to overturn the wishes of a town.” Part of the dispute is over which definition applies to Club Motorsports and its plans for a three-mile driving surface. Is it a racetrack? If it is, it is subject to local oversight with or without a special ordinance or zoning rules. But club president Lloyd Dahmen much prefers to call it a course. He also told the committee HB 90 sends a bad signal to people who would start businesses in New Hampshire. In a later interview, Dahmen said he plans to charge initiation fees ranging as high as $21,000 for up to 1,000 members who own vintage sports cars and want a place to drive them the way they were designed. The course would be open seven days a week, except in winter. Dahmen said the Tamworth ordinance is so restrictive it would shut down all activity in town if applied to every home and business. Passage of HB 90 would force the firm to sue to build the project. Stephen Gaal, testifying for Focus:Tamworth, said 84 percent of town voters supported the racetrack ordinance in 2004. That was four days after former Gov. Craig Benson signed HB 458 into law. Nobody in town knew their vote was meaningless at the time, but the Legislature had already stripped the document of power. “The developer got that enacted without telling anyone in Tamworth,” Gaal said. He insisted the proposed project is a racetrack. “It will have up to 30 cars competing at any given time,” he said. “Their Web site says it will be for racing.” Judy Silva, a lobbyist for the New Hampshire Municipal Association, hopes HB 90 will pass in order to correct “a mistake” her organization and other supporters of HB 90 made last year. ‘A country club’ In an interview, Kate Vachon, another spokesperson for the Tamworth citizens, said they’ve met with most of the 24 senators, telling them the issue is local control of a business with major impact. Several members of the Senate Transportation Committee co-sponsored SB 458 last year, aware there was opposition to the track. The new bill could face a tough fight in committee. Chairman Robert Letourneau, R-Derry, told the Focus:Tamworth crowd they could keep the hearing going all day, but it wouldn’t change the outcome. A few minutes later he apologized for the slip, and said the committee has an open mind about the bill. Co-sponsor Robert Boyce, R-Alton, said he’s a vintage sports car buff and spent time on tracks like this when he was younger. “It’ll be a lot like a country club,” Boyce said in an interview. “It won’t be like the NASCAR track in Loudon. There won’t be any spectators. I might like to join it myself if I can afford the fees.” Sen. John Gallus, R-Berlin, was another SB 458 co-sponsor. In the transcript of his Senate testimony made Jan. 14, 2004, he said the track would increase Tamworth’s tax base by $30 million and attract 50 full-time and 200 part-time jobs. “Our economy is tourism-based, and this club would increase tourism for the North Country,” Gallus testified. Sen. Bob Clegg, R-Hudson, another supporter of SB 458, chided Tamworth lawmakers for sleeping on the job last year. “Shame on them for not watching that bill,” he said. “There was nobody opposed to it at any of the hearings last year.” Scott Tranchemontagne, a spokesman for Club Motorsports, said the course would have no spectator crowds. “We will not allow noisy, NASCAR-type stock cars on our course,” he said. “We are private and nonpublic.” He said the European road course would spread cars out over the whole three miles in staggered starts running against the clock. “Facilities like this didn’t exist back in the 1960s, when they wrote the original racetrack law,” Tranchemontagne said. “And people should know Tamworth still has local control over our facility. The town just passed a very restrictive noise ordinance.” Tranchemontagne said other towns have nothing to fear. “This is a $30 million development,” he said. “If this is built in Tamworth, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll see another project like it in New England. The next closest one is in Pennsylvania.” Representative Merrow led the recent House floor fight for HB 90. “Would any of you want this done to your town?” he asked his colleagues before the lopsided vote. “It affects every town in the state. We made a mistake last year. Now let’s overturn the committee report.”
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