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Jim Kenyon: Better sawn and not heard? Noise surrounds Springfield, N.H., firewood business

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 10/12/2019 9:57:33 PM
Modified: 10/12/2019 9:57:18 PM

In a spat with neighbors that has gone public, Mark Laughlin knows that he comes across as the bad guy for standing in the way of a young woodsman just trying to make a living in the small town of Springfield, N.H.

“I’m considered the villain in this town,” Laughlin told me.

What’s the squabble about?

A chainsaw, mostly. Or to be precise, the noise it generates.

Laughlin, 60, has lived on Old Grantham Road in Springfield for more than 20 years. His neighbors, the Cote family, have owned the property next door for at least three generations.

Earlier this year, Nick Cote, who graduated from Kearsarge Regional High School in 2018, started a firewood-cutting business on his parents’ homestead, which abuts Laughlin’s property.

Laughlin says the chainsaw noise is more than he can bear. But in a rural community with 1,300 residents and a lot of forestland, Laughlin senses that many folks think he just needs to suck it up.

Ordinarily, I might agree.

But two years ago, Laughlin, a trained gas technician, was performing maintenance work on a boiler at Simon Pearce’s glassblowing facility in Quechee when there was a propane explosion. Laughlin suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with debilitating headaches and bouts of depression.

“The more noise I hear, the more (the symptoms) flare up,” he said. “I struggle with it every day.”

He’s been diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome. Since the accident, he’s worked only part time, which means he’s often home when Cote is using his chainsaw.

Laughlin, a 1977 Mascoma Regional High School graduate who grew up in neighboring Enfield, said he approached Cote this summer with questions about his new business, which he’d seen advertised on signs around town.

“You guys going to be cutting firewood all the time?” Laughlin recalls asking.

When he didn’t get a clear answer, Laughlin went to town officials. He pointed out that Cote’s new business violated Springfield’s zoning ordinance, which prohibits outdoor commercial businesses in rural residential areas.

On Sept. 9, Cote and his father, Scott, the property owner, filed an application for a special exception with the town’s zoning board.

The younger Cote planned to operate his business during daylight hours “Monday through Saturday; sometimes on Sunday,” according to the application.

On Oct. 1, I attended the public hearing the Zoning Board held on the matter. Laughlin’s attorney, Stephen Girdwood, of Lebanon, presented the board with a letter from his client’s doctor at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston.

The wood-cutting business next door to Laughlin’s home “involves significant noise pollution,” wrote Kenneth Larsen, a clinical psychologist. “I can attest to the fact that that volume of noise from chainsaws is adversely affecting my patient who is experiencing increased headaches and anxiety symptoms.”

Later, Laughlin shared Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical records with town officials that describe his battle with “ongoing headaches, fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Girdwood reminded the board that a special exception can only be granted if certain conditions are met, including that a proposed business is not “contrary to the public health.”

Laughlin was the only abutter to oppose the application. “I’ve got this medical condition,” he told the board. “This is just too loud.”

At the hearing, Nick Cote, 20, sat next to his dad, who did most of the talking. Scott Cote apologized for not seeking the town’s permission earlier.

“We don’t want to be a bad neighbor,” he said. “There’s no perfect solution. They don’t make quiet chainsaws.

“It’s all part of living in the countryside.”

The younger Cote, who has used a chainsaw since he was 13, said the amount of time he spends cutting up logs and running them through a wood splitter varies from week to week.

Springfield Zoning Coordinator Whit Smith said without a special exception there’s no place in town that (Cote) could operate his business. “He’d have to leave town.”

Laughlin is not unsympathetic to the younger Cote’s conundrum.

“I don’t want to shoot down a kid who wants to work,” he told me when I visited his home, which is separated from the Cotes’ property by a small stand of trees. (The two homes are roughly 100 yards apart.)

He also appreciates where Scott Cote is coming from: “He wants his kid to succeed like every parent does.”

But the noise from the chainsaw “just screams in my head,” Laughlin said. “It’s brutal.”

To get a lay of the land, the board visited the site on a recent Saturday. About 20 residents showed up. Only Laughlin argued against the proposal, according to meeting minutes.

I get why people want to support what a father and son are trying to do in Springfield — and what wouldn’t have become an issue, if Laughlin hadn’t spoken up.

The Cotes do “tree work,” removing stumps, cutting brush and clearing land for property owners. When they finish a job, there are often unwanted felled trees that could be turned into firewood.

“Rather than have (the wood) go to waste, it’s an opportunity for my son to make an extra dollar on the side,” Scott Cote said when we talked last week.

They also plan to buy logs to cut. “It would be nice to have a load sitting there” so his son will have work when the tree business is slow, he said.

The Zoning Board is expected to vote next month on whether to grant the special exception. I don’t envy the five members. Do they support a young man’s livelihood? Or does the impact on his neighbor’s health win out?

It’s a tough call, any way you cut it.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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