No Rehearing for Kingdom Hall Foes
The ZBA voted unanimously Wednesday night to uphold their Nov. 16 decision to settle a lawsuit with a group of Jehovah's Witnesses who want to build on Wire Road.
A plan to build a Kingdom Hall on Wire Road will proceed at the planning board stage after the Zoning Board of Adjustment upheld its decision Wednesday night to grant them a special exception.
With no further discussion on the matter, the ZBA voted to deny the request before them to reconsider the decision they made on Nov. 16.
“I'm floored,” Bob Walles, one of the petitioners for the rehearing said after the meeting. “I realized this wouldn't be a debate tonight, but I thought they'd at least discuss it.”
On Nov. 16, the board signed a settlement with the Jehovah's Witnesses that gave them the special exception they needed to pursue Planning Board approval to build a Kingdom Hall at 59 Wire Road. The ZBA had initially denied the group's special exception in 2010 and upheld their decision when the Jehovah's Witnesses appealed.
The congregation sued the town, charging its special exception process is unconstitutional in that it lets a board to apply one set of rules to one group and a different set to another. It also charges, among other things, that the town treated the church differently than it would have another denomination violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
During the summer the two sides agreed to settle, but a judge ruled against the agreement, advising the ZBA to handle the matter in town by signing a settlement that gave the special exception. They agreed to the settlement in a 3-2 vote.
On Dec. 12, Bob and Donna Walles, who live directly across from the proposed build site, sent a letter to the town requesting a rehearing on the matter. In the letter, they cited the following four reasons to justify their request:
- That the ZBA determined their decision based on the costs of defending against the lawsuit brought forth by the congregation;
- That the diminution of property values criterion was not addressed at the November hearing.
- That the ZBA improperly delegated the review of traffic and safety to the Planning Board; and
- That state law changes allow the ZBA to hire appropriate professionals to review information that previously was only available to the Planning Board.
According to RSA 677:3, for the ZBA to grant the request for the rehearing, the board must determine that the decision at issue was unlawful or unreasonable.
When ZBA member Mike Marshall made the motion to deny the request, he spoke only to that the request did not meet that criteria.
There was nothing in the letter that brought to light any new information about the project, Patrick Dwyer said in his second of the motion. The motion passed unanimously.
The decision was not the one approximately half a dozen abutters who showed up to the meeting had hoped for.
Former Town Councilor Mike Malzone was furious with the decision saying that the church got a rehearing when they appealed the board's ruling and this should have, too.
“You wonder why people want to overthrow the government,” Malzone said in the hallway following the board's vote.
Donna and Bob Walles said they were very disappointed with the decision.
“There's so many empty properties in this town that would be much more suited to their needs,” Donna Walles said. “I realize it would cost them additional money, but that's not our problem. There are so many properties that are better suited for them and wouldn't require a special zoning exception.”
She and her husband have never opposed Skip Therrien's desire to sell the property, but allowing a church to be built in this location is a bad decision on the town's behalf, she said.
“They said before that cost to the town was one of their concerns,” Bob Walles said. “If cost to the town was one of their concerns, why do you let someone in that's not going to pay any taxes?”
In making his recommendation to the board last year to settle the case, the town's attorney Garry Lane advised the board of the potential that the litigation in this case could cost the town upward of $1 million.
A couple members of the Jehovah's Witness congregation and their project manager, Ralph Randall, stepped out of the meeting quietly following Wednesday night's decision. They will meet with the Planning Board on Feb. 7 to continue the conversation they started on Jan. 3. The planning board held off on voting on anything at their meeting earlier this month, to see how the ZBA would rule before continuing discussions about the project.
According to town statutes, this does not have to be the end for the Walles and their neighbors if they don't want it to. They have 30 days to appeal the decision to the superior court, according to RSA 677:4.
“We've had some people from Mallard Point stop by to see what we could do and I think this was what we could do, we just did it. So I'm going to have to regroup and see what my options are,” Bob Walles said.
Following the meeting, ZBA Chairman Tony Pellegrino said he had no further comment on the matter.