Thornton Boards At Odds Over Cell Tower Plan on Land Owned By Sununu Family

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Screen shot of Thursday's Thornton Zoning Board meeting.

– A controversial plan to build a 170-foot cell tower near the White Mountain National Forest’s Welch-Dickey hiking trail on land owned by the Sununu family will go back to the Planning Board for reconsideration after the Zoning Board met Thursday night to consider the denial at the request of the developer.

The Zoning Board called the Planning Board decision “unlawful and unreasonable” and has questions as to why it was denied and will be working next Monday to craft language aimed at having the Planning Board reconsider.
The consensus to remand was made Thursday night, despite the fact many neighbors voiced opposition to and concern about the project.

Members of Gov. Chris Sununu’s family, who own the property and nearby Waterville Valley resort, were approached by the Massachusetts-based cell tower development company Vertex Tower Assets LLC more than a year ago to build a tower on the remote and mountainous site.

It is seeking to build the lattice-style tower near the Mad River and close to the National Forest.
The town of Thornton’s Planning Board denied the proposals this spring.

On Thursday night, the developer sought to overturn the Planning Board denial based on the board’s interpretation of the provisions of the Thornton Telecommunications Ordinance in the Planning Board’s denial of the applicant’s site plan review application.

Members of the Zoning Board said they do not believe they have standing over site plan review but did have lots of questions as to why the Planning Board came to the decision after contradictory evidence was presented.
It wants a detailed explanation after the developer answered all questions they asked.

Francis Parisi, for the developer, said they were “blindsided” by the decision, and that they thought they were on a path to get site plan approval.

But the plan did meet with public outcry after word of the project circulated in the rural town.

The applicant for the project is listed as SMA Realty Trust with Michael C. Sununu and James G. Sununu, both brothers of the governor, listed as trustees.

The governor has distanced himself from his administrative involvement in the Waterville Valley resort since being elected.

While the cell tower would not specifically be needed for Waterville Valley ski resort, there are cell phone gaps in coverage near the Campton and Thornton town lines, and local public safety officials have supported the concept of added cell coverage for safety.

But residents in this remote part of town, near the border of the White Mountain National Forest, have been opponents of the project.

The meeting, which was available on Zoom, was attended in person and online by some of those neighbors.
The meeting began with a written challenge to the standing of the Zoning Board in taking the appeal by the Planning Board.

The Planning Board is elected and the Zoning Board is appointed by selectmen. This was an administrative appeal.
The Planning Board’s letter argued that the Zoning Board had no jurisdiction and that the applicant had run out of time for an appeal.

That was rejected by four of the five Zoning Board members (one of whom recused himself after expressing previous support for the project). They denied the Planning Board’s contention that they did not have jurisdiction and that the applicant had run out of appeal time.

One neighbor, Sally Davis, said the correct spot for this appeal is the courts, saying the matter also pertains to federal permitting.

Elaine Schultz is an abutter. She said fire safety is a significant concern and there were concerns raised about access to fight a fire on the proposed steep road in addition to inadequate drainage and possible erosion.

Marcia King, another abutter, echoed those concerns about access and fire danger.

The Zoning Board members read a letter from the fire chief to the Planning Board that clarified that his concerns about the steep grade of the road should not be used by the Planning Board as a reason to deny the project.

The developer said he was not aware of the letter and had it been known by the Planning Board, it may well have allowed for the plan to be approved.

Jeremy Duffield, a neighbor, and opponent said the Zoning Board has no jurisdiction because its appeal is an interpretation of a zoning ordinance and it was just too late.

“All appeals should be heard in a court of law. There is no jurisdiction of the ZBA to hear this.”
He said it has all been a site plan review discussion during the public hearing and that was not the purview of the Zoning Board.

The place for this is a court of law, not the Zoning Board, Duffield said.

Kathleen Kelly said members of zoning and planning are entrusted to make unbiased decisions and the Planning Board used safety factors to decide this.

She expressed concerns for wind velocity and water flow on the property and its proximity to a heavily developed area known as Sugar Run.

Alexa Martin of Campton said she and her husband overlook the site and some of her concerns are environmental. She also discussed some training flights of military aircraft and potential conflicts from the tower.

Jeremy Barnaby said watching this meeting and seeing Parisi “attempt to overturn another board decision seems like a miscarriage of public due course.”

Barnaby said Parisi should instead be asking for reconsideration from the Planning Board.

The Zoning Board worked on a detailed list of questions for the Planning Board to answer in its request for reconsideration. They are planning to work on it and send it to them next week.
July 1 is the next regular Planning Board meeting.

Areas to be explored include getting answers to why the board used public safety concerns related to the steepness of the driveway and firefighting access when the fire chief said it was not an issue, environmental impacts with regards to erosion, and storm water run-off, and flooding issues.

The Thornton Zoning Board website says Joseph Monti is its chair, and members are Alan Rawson, Gerald Sobolewski, Joan Marshall, Kenneth Miller, and Kerrin Randall.

The Zoning Board will next meet on June 28 at 6 p.m.

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