Suit Against Town Over Kingdom Hall Settled
Mediation session draws up agreement that makes neighbors, church happy; pre-site work pushes back construction to next spring.
It's been a long couple years for Bob and Donna Walles and their neighbors who fought tooth and nail against the construction of a Kingdom Hall in their residential neighborhood on Wire Road.
But Bob Walles said, for the most part, it's all's well that ends well.
Six months ago, the Walles filed a lawsuit against the town for how it handled the reversal of a decision against a special exception to build a Kingdom Hall on a residential road.
However, Walles said the case was settled during a mediation session in which a five-condition agreement was drawn up that resolved a couple of issues neighbors of the church had with its plan. The agreement also precluded the Walles from further pursuing a lawsuit against the town.
“We thought the whole way they (the ZBA) went about it was wrong,” Walles said.
The suit was between the town and the Walles, but the Jehovah's Witnesses filed for rights for intervention and were granted them, Walles said.
In the suit, Walles accused the board of secret meetings and being forced to make the decision “under duress,” which he said at the time clouded their judgement.
“I contend that the members of the Zoning Board, during non-public and illegal meetings with the Town Counsel and Town Attorney were told to grant the special exception, to mitigate the potential legal costs of defending the pending lawsuit brought against the town by the congregation,” Walles said in the suit.
The suit was never about the church, but rather the process, Walles said. But, when the church intervened, the Walleses knew it was going to become much more difficult.
“They told us in no uncertain terms that they would continue to pursue the project,” Walles said, pointing out how expensive a legal battle could become.
A mediation session was pulled together with the Walles, Town Attorney Matt Upton, Judge Robert Morrill, Assistant Planner Nancy Larsen and representatives form the Jehovah's witnesses. In addition to agreeing to drop the case without prejudice – meaning the Walles cannot refile the same or a similar suit – the Jehovah's Witnesses agreed to tweak the design plan at the church move the driveway a few feet to make it so the headlights of cars exiting the church splash more on the woods than the homes across the street, to add more landscaping where the driveway was planned for originally, to create a hotline for people to call to be put on a do not call list and to inform the congregation that turning around in local driveways is strictly prohibiting, Walles said.
Despite heavy controversy during the hearings for the project between 2012 and 2012, and a discord between neighbors and the church, Walles said he and others have come around to the project, especially after the mediation session.
“We sitting here with this decision because something went right,” Walles said, adding that he and some of his neighbors have become very friendly with Ron and Lynn Hansen. “The process worked.”
That said, Walles does plan to pursue filing an ethics complaint and asking the town's ethics committee to look into how the ZBA handle the process.
Hansen, a congregation elder, said he also felt good about the results of the mediation.
“I think the one thing that came out of the mediation was it was an opportunity to answer a lot of the questions and concerns,” Hansen said.
The town also agreed to repair some potholes on the street and trim back some trees that obscure the line of sight for some motorists.
However, due to a couple set backs, none of the work at the church is going to be until spring, Hansen said. At the time the project was approved by the planning board Fran Lapoint, an engineer for the Jehovah's Witness regional building committee, said it was possible they could begin work on the construction project this fall, but last week, Hansen said the project has been pushed to the spring for a couple reasons.
The regional building committee for the Jehovah's Witnesses is busy building a couple other Kingdom Halls in Claremont and South Royalton, Vt., Hansen said, and there were some town and state conditions to rectify first.
“If we'd completed things soon enough, we were hoping to have been able to do some site work this fall, which would have helped us hit the ground in the spring, but it just got away from us and like I said, we've got some other projects going on over in Claremont and up in South Royalton, Vermont,” Hansen said.
One of those state conditions, digging test holes on the property to check for the possibility of historical significance on the property in terms of potential for American Indian activity.
As of last week, about 20 percent of the test holes had been completed, Hansen said. He added that its pretty standard for a project like this. When a storm water protection grant with the EPA, Hansen said it triggered a submission of the plan to several groups around the state, including the New Hampshire Department of Historical Resources, who required the test holes.
“Because of New Hampshire's river system, there was a lot of Indian activity around the state,” Hansen said. He does not believe there will arise a problem at the site. The main effect of the test holes is that the building project is definitely on hold unit probably April or May, Hansen said.
A timeline from the eventual approval of the Kingdom Hall.
2010: The Jehovah's Witnesses approach the town's Zoning Board of Adjustment to seek a special exception to build a church on old farm land on the residential road.
Fall 2010: After impassioned pleas from abutters to prevent this project, the ZBA ruled in the fall of 2010 against the special exception, citing traffic and public nuisance concerns, among other things.
Early 2011: The congregation appealed the ruling and the ZBA denied the appeal so the congregation sued the town, charging the town's special exception process is unconstitutional in that it lets a board apply one set of rules to one group and a different set to another. It also charged, 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.
Nov. 16, 2011: The ZBA reversed its decision against the congregation in a settlement that effectively granted the special exception the board initially denied and moved it on to the Planning Board. ZBA's Nov. 16 ruling to settle the lawsuit.
Jan. 25, 2012: The Walleses were also denied a rehearing by the ZBA. Following the meeting, Bob Walles said he would regroup and see what his options are. In accordance with town statutes, the Walleses had 30 days from the Jan. 25 meeting to appeal the ruling to the Superior Court.
Feb. 7, 2012: The Merrimack Planning Board gives conditional approval to the congregation to build the church.