Planning Board needs new members

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 12-29-2023 10:47 PM

ORFORD — Following a wave of resignations, the Orford Planning Board canceled its December meeting because it was unable to achieve a quorum. The Selectboard is now scrambling to find enough volunteers to enable the board to fulfill its requirements to the town and to state law until new board members can be elected at Town Meeting in March.

Planning Board Chairman Terry Straight and Vice Chairman Harry Osmer both resigned in November, followed by Kenneth King and Faith Knapp on Dec. 3 and 4, respectively. The seven-member board had been functioning with one vacant seat prior to the resignations.

The board also included two alternate members who had been admonished by the Selectboard earlier in the year for chronic absences from meetings. The October Planning Board minutes indicate that both alternates had been asked to resign their positions but had not responded to the requests.

By Dec. 5, the only remaining Planning Board member was Selectboard Chairman John Adams, whose ex-officio role meant that he could neither vote nor count toward a quorum.

Because the town is required by New Hampshire law to have a planning board that meets monthly, the Selectboard needs to find at least four volunteers willing to serve as court-appointed interim members.

Adams issued a plea for volunteers on the Dec. 3 Orford Listserv, explaining that “the Town of Orford does not have a functioning Planning Board. This is now a serious situation for the Town.”

Planning Board members do not receive compensation, but Adams noted that training was available for anyone willing to serve. Members also receive support from board assistant Vickie Davis, a planner with the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission.

Because Orford does not have zoning ordinances, the Planning Board makes decisions about land use changes, subdivisions, boundaries and development in accordance with the town’s Master Plan, which was most recently updated in 2018. Whereas a zoning ordinance establishes legally binding regulations on land use, a Master Plan is simply a guide for future strategy. The Planning Board’s role is to determine whether proposed land use changes are consistent with the vision described in the Master Plan.

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Adams said in an interview that the departures were the result of “changes to people’s personal lives” and that it was “more happenstance than any catastrophic event” that triggered the resignations.

“We’re in the process of rejuvenating it,” he said of the board.

But in a recent telephone interview, Straight said that he resigned on Nov. 30 because “there is one Selectboard member that’s constantly bad-mouthing the Planning Board” and “we all just had enough of it.” He declined to name the Selectboard member.

The three other Planning Board members, Kenneth King, Faith Knapp and Harry Osmer, did not return requests for comment.

Davis said in an interview that “it’s just generally hard to find volunteers” in smaller towns such as Orford, which has a population of about 1,200. She noted, though, that the recent resignations were likely precipitated by “some dissatisfaction with support” for the Planning Board.

Additionally, Davis characterized the Master Plan that guides the board’s work as somewhat ineffectual, relying too much on subdivision regulations to achieve its goals of preserving the town’s rural character.

“It doesn’t feel like it does what a Master Plan should do,” she said.

The most prominent weakness that Davis noted was the lack of any mention of zoning, which she says “can’t be avoided” if the town wants to achieve the vision articulated in the Master Plan. Right now, she said, “a box store or any other commercial or industrial enterprise could buy any lot and put their facilities there without coming under town rules.”

Davis said the board had been interested in rewriting the plan, “but they were kept busy with other things, such as applications, amending the subdivision regulations and rules of procedure.”

Adams said the Selectboard is working with the town attorney on the logistics of appointing new members.

“We do not have any pending business,” he said of the Planning Board and noted that he has “no idea” how long the process of finding replacements will take.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan18020@gmail.com.