Water firm sues Peterborough, competitor over conflicts

A spring water firm filed suit in federal court last week charging that Peterborough officials quashed its effort to expand while helping a rival company that several town officials had an interest in.

Monadnock View Holdings, parent company of Highland Springs, claims that Roberta “Posy” Bass, sister of Congressman Charlie Bass and a member of the town planning board, voted against the company’s proposal to expand operations and change a historic barn into a restaurant – all while not disclosing that she was the managing partner of Barking Dog Water.

It also charges that John J. Ratigan, attorney for the town and the registered agent for Barking Dog, advised the town against many of the Monadnock View’s proposals to withdraw water while arguing for Barking Dog’s proposals to withdraw much more water in nearby towns.

Bass told NHBR Daily she could not comment until she saw the suit. Ratigan could not be reach for comment.

The suit, which also names the town, its various decision-making boards, Barking Dog and Selectwoman Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, is for at least $5 million. It stems from a three-year attempt for Monadnock View to expand, but like other such proposals from spring water companies (such as USA Springs in Nottingham), the plan was opposed by residents concerned about increased truck traffic and the effect pumping might have on their wells.

Towns can’t restrict water withdrawals, but they can stop expansion based on increased traffic, which the town zoning board did in February 2002.

Monadnock View, however, tried again the following year, after the state zoning board granted a special request for Upland Farms (another water bottling company). The difference, according to the suit, was that Upland planned to use state roads, the suit noted, that Upland Farms president John H Morrison III had a “close relationship with Defendants Bass and Thomas.”

Monadnock View tied the expansion plan with a plan to restore the 100-year-old stone barn – one of two such structures in the state — located on the property. The company said that it needed the extra revenue to complete the expansion. Without that extra cash, the company said it would have to demolish the barn or truck it away.

Opponents of the plan said that offer amounted to blackmail.

Monadnock View wanted the zoning board to grant a variance to build a bulk transfer station and create a restaurant in an area zoned residential, arguing that there were no residents in the area, that the barn and Monadnock Community Hospital were already there, and that it would generate less traffic and use up less water than a housing development.

The suit also charges that the zoning board refused to take testimony from Monadnock View’s various experts and rejected the proposal, after being advised by Ratigan, without the attorney disclosing his relationship with Barking Dog.

Monadnock View tried to put the question to voters as a ballot initiative, getting the town Heritage Commission and Conservation Commission on board, after it agreed to pay $50,000 in escrow should there be an impact to abutters and $100,000 to renovate the stone barn. But Ratigan opposed the plan as “illegal spot zoning,” and Bass – also without disclosing her relationship with Barking Dog – “was instrumental” in getting the planning board to come out against the initiative in 2004, the suit says.

Voters rejected the plan in March 9, 2004.

However, on March 31, selectman expressed interest in building a 1.5-mile pipe to access water from Barking Dog wells, as opposed to utilizing Monadnock View wells for the town’s water usage, the suit says.

And in the coming months, Ratigan – representing Barking Dog — appeared before the town of Sharon four times, and once with Bass in front of the Jaffrey zoning panel concerning a plan to withdraw 720,000 gallons a day, the suit says.

Ratigan, according to the suit, believed that the town of Peterborough would be “likely customers” for Barking Dog’s water.

Peterborough’s supported Barking Dog’s application, even though it was larger than MVH and was in a more environmentally sensitive area, claims the suit.

As a result of these and other obstacles, Monadnock View faced a foreclosure sale in March 2005, and the town – according to the suit – was interested in the Heritage Commission plan to purchase the property, partly for the town’s use of the water.

But the auction was held off, and the company tried one more time to create an inn and restaurant at the stone barn, but the zoning board denied the variance request in May 2005, again after Ratigan instructed the board “on methods by which to effectuate denial”

Monadnock View filed for bankruptcy on June 7, saying that it owed roughly $7 million, slightly more than it was worth.

Bass, along with the other defendants, “made a conscious effort to deny plaintiff’s economically viable use of their property in an effort to acquire plaintiff’s property so that the plaintiff’s water resources could be secured for use by the town or that defendant Barking Dog Water could maintain a stronger percentage of the current water bottling market share,” the suit says. – BOB SANDERS

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