CHESTER – The planning board has granted Dick Lewis and family’s Maple Forest Farm, LLC the ability to utilize their property on Halls Village Road for Lewis’s longstanding forestry operation, Chester Forest Products.
Earlier this year the company received a special exception from the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) to operate a forestry, logging and sawmill operation at 143 Halls Village Road, a residential area, and as part of that approval Lewis was required to visit with the planning board for a site plan review.
Over several meetings the planning board, town officials, abutters and applicants have been parsing what is planned for the site and making sure the logging business doesn’t negatively impact the surrounding area.
While Lewis has shown through the process that he’s willing to compromise on a number of points, especially when it comes to his use of the road, the planning board and town officials have been struggling with what is appropriate for the space and what responsibilities should be incumbent on the business.
The two main points discussed at the Wednesday, July 9 meeting were use of the road and the application of fire codes.
Road agent Mike Oleson has been vocal throughout the process in seeking to find a compromise that would allow Lewis to work, but not in a way that damages the road on the town’s dime.
Oleson said he had made a gentlemen’s agreement with Lewis at the start of the process that Lewis would refrain from using roads posted against heavy trucks during the winter. Oleson noted that he knew Lewis as a man of his word and that he was sure he would care for the area, but added that the town needed some protection.
After much discussion at last week’s meeting, the planning board agreed that it was wise to keep the condition of approval that Lewis must use the gravel portion of Halls Village Road during times when the road is posted and that Lewis would be responsible for upkeep of that road during that time.
When it came to a condition of approval prompted by the fire chief, however, the planning board decided it wasn’t necessary and removed it.
The planning board and applicant cited safety concerns with use of the gravel road and suggested using the small portion of Halls Village that leads to Webster Lane instead. Questions over how to determine what Lewis would be responsible for and what mechanism was in place to prompt his fixing the road if it were damaged were pondered.
A discussion with the town’s engineer, cited by planning board chair Brian Sullivan, indicated that the paved portion of Halls Village was in such poor condition that it was not possible to get a baseline on which to judge future damage.
It was also noted that in 30-plus years of operating off Wells Village Road, damage by logging trucks was insignificant.
While the matter went back and forth for some time, planning board member Mike Weider convinced the rest of the board that they shouldn’t be getting so specific in the conditions of approval. If Lewis wanted to use the road when posted, he always had the option of seeking relief with the selectmen, Weider said.
Weider also largely convinced the board to take out that condition of approval asked for inclusion by fire chief Rich Antoine.
Earlier in the process Antoine informed the board that he wanted a third party to handle the fire code review of the site, as he wanted to stay out of the local politics.
Review of the plans by the town’s engineer initially prompted the planning board to consult the fire chief.
The fire code issues were a major sticking point for Lewis, who noted that not only was there a $5,000 cost for the third-party review but he was concerned that he had no input into results that could cost him thousands more.
It had been floated during the process that a fence may have to be erected around portions of the business for safety, and Lewis noted that not only was that unprecedented at a sawmill, but it was not feasible and was unnecessary.
Lewis asked the board to ask Antoine to take care of the review. He noted that he had also contacted the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands to contact the fire marshal on the matter.
Planning board member Evan Sederquest said it was the fire chief’s job to review the property and he was capable of that work.
Lewis attended the meeting with his attorney, Steven Clark, who said he understood the planning board to have been helpful through the process and was there to assist Lewis.
Clark argued that the history of the sawmill on Wells Village should weigh in favor of Lewis’s request. Clark noted there hadn’t been any safety issues, fences or gates at the previous site.
Weider was a proponent of limited restriction on the site, saying the planning board had not asked similar things for similar businesses in the past. He argued that a reading of the town’s regulations and the state’s laws indicate that what Lewis does falls under the auspices of agriculture and the town had not restricted farms in similar ways.
On Weider’s suggestion the board removed the condition of approval prompted by the fire chief. Weider argued that it was unnecessary as a condition and that the fire chief still had the right and duty to review the property and cite any issues he sees as a matter of code enforcement.
“I don’t think we should hold it (approval) up for this. If this is the stumbling point,” said Weider.
Sullivan said that while doing so would take the responsibility away from the planning board, it didn’t relieve the concerns Lewis or the fire chief had.
The planning board also sought to take an inventory of what equipment and buildings would be operated on site by Chester Forest Products so as to gauge future growth and prompt another meeting with the town if the business grew.
The planning board, minus the abstention of selectman liaison Rich LeBlanc, voted unanimously to approve the site plan.