‘21st century rural lifestyle’ at risk

The story unfolding in Wilmot could occur in any small town

Wilmot is a small town of about 1,400 people who live in the shadow of Mt. Kearsarge, amid woods and rolling hills, small farms and businesses, with more than our fair share of rivers, ponds and wildlife. Our local government website features the tagline, “Wilmot, New Hampshire: Celebrating the 21st-Century Rural Lifestyle,” but in recent months, town officials appear to be complicit in activities that jeopardize the health and well-being of our town residents and our beautiful rural environment.

The story unfolding in Wilmot could occur in any small town, where residents are too busy to participate in – or pay close attention to – their town government, until something akin to an explosion occurs that threatens where they live, and why they live there.

In March 1968, Wilmot residents voted to ban heavy industry in town, specifically the “storage of flammable and explosive materials” when they approved an ordinance at a town meeting. Yet in early January, the community learned that our zoning board of adjustment had granted a variance that permits Huckleberry Oil and Propane Company to locate a storage and distribution facility here, with more than 30,000 gallons of oil, kerosene and propane.

The proposed site on Route 11 is close to businesses, homes and residential neighborhoods. The site’s drainage flows beneath the road into Whitney Brook, and on to Chase and Tannery ponds, into the Blackwater River and beyond, raising fears of imminent contamination of our watershed.

So why did our neighbors on the ZBA approve a variance for the project without the knowledge of, or input from, local residents?

The ZBA, chaired by the current owner of the proposed site, Wilmot resident Russell E. Jewell Jr., chose to meet the barest minimum legal requirement for notification of its public hearing. It posted notices in the town office, post office and The Concord Monitor, but not in our local papers, where such notices are usually posted and local people read them.

Jewell and David Huckins, owner of Huckleberry Oil, met with the planning board for the first time on May 5, 2014, and were advised to seek a variance from the ZBA to move their project forward. Two days later, Jewell was sworn in as a member of the ZBA by the board of selectmen.

At the Dec. 2, 2014, meeting of the ZBA to discuss the variance, Jewell, by then the board chair, recused himself from decision-making, as is recommended by the NH Municipal Association for board members with potential conflicts of interest.

The NHMA also notes that when a board member recuses himself “the official … should immediately leave their seat at the board table and, preferably, leave the room until the board moves on to the next subject.”

But Jewell, as the sole town resident in the audience that day, provided the board with his personal, and arguably faulty, interpretation of zoning laws at issue, in an apparent effort to influence their decision in his favor.

Their next public hearings will be held on May 18 and June 8, and their decision is due by June 15.

Meanwhile, our small town is quietly unifying in opposition. We are connecting online, sharing our research into local and state regulations, consulting with experts and building our case against this catastrophe in the making.

We are a community made up of all kinds of people who share deep affection for each other and our small town. Our embrace of rural lifestyles is strong amid the rising chaos of the 21st century, and it will never include heavy industry – and especially not flammable and explosive materials – in Wilmot, New Hampshire.

Kimberly Swick Slover has lived in Wilmot for 13 years.

Categories: Opinion