Feds Challenge Coos Planners’ Authority

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Coos Planning Board

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By Chris Jensen

The Coos Planning Board seems headed for a collision with the federal government over the board’s assertion that it has the authority to regulate private projects on federal lands.

The Coos planners already regulate zoning on the county’s 23 unincorporated areas, such as Millsfield, because they have no governmental body of their own.

But the question is whether Coos officials will have any control over private projects approved by the federal government on federal lands such as the White Mountain National Forest.

For example, if the federal government approved another ski resort like Wildcat or a new Appalachian Mountain Club hut in an unincorporated area in Coos County, the Coos planners contend its zoning regulations apply.

The planners acknowledge that a project on federal land for “governmental” purposes is outside its jurisdiction. One example would be a new ranger station. The issue is coming up as the Coos planners recently completed the first review of its zoning regulations in three decades.

As part of that update, they changed some of the language to make what they see as their authority more clear.

But at a meeting earlier this month, the planning board saw the first sign of resistance. It came from U.S. Forest Service official Jennifer Barnhart, who is the Androscoggin District Ranger.

Barnhart said that anything that the U.S. Forest Service approves on federal land is designed to meet a governmental goal. Consequently, there is no difference between a private project and one run by the forest service.

She said the federal government approved Wildcat because it thought skiing met a goal of providing recreation in the White Mountain National Forest. So, that was a governmental function.

The planners did note a state law they say supports their position. It says “Any use, construction, or development of land occurring on governmentally owned or occupied land, but which is not a governmental use as defined in paragraph I, shall be fully subject to local land use regulations.”

However, it does not specifically reference the federal government.

Barnhart also noted the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause.

That clause says “federal law generally, take precedence over state laws, and even state constitutions,” according to the Cornell Law School.

She urged the planning board’s lawyer to meet with federal officials to discuss the matter as part of being “good neighbors.”

One project that could fall into this debate is the planned renovation of Camp Dodge Volunteer Trails Center in Greens’ Grant, which has been run in a partnership with the Appalachian Mountain Club.

The debate apparently won’t affect the proposed hotel on the Cog Railway because it would be on private land.

One reason for the U.S. Forest Service to resist the Coos planners is that there are other local planning boards whose jurisdictions include federal land. Conceding regulatory authority to Coos could mean a planning board in Bethlehem might want the same control over federal projects.

The zoning document must now be approved by the three Coos County Commissioners and the Coos delegation.

InDepthNH.org is NH’s nonprofit news website published online by the New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism. Veteran journalist Chris Jensen covers the North Country and can be reached at christopherjensennh@gmail.com

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