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Jim Kenyon: Plainfield town official’s appointees give him a first-of-its-kind pass on property rules

  • Plainfield Moderator Paul Franklin, left, talks with Town Administrator Stephen Halleran, middle, and Selectboard Member Eric Brann, right, during Town Meeting in the Plainfield Elementary gym in Meriden, N.H., on Saturday, March 12, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/19/2022 9:57:17 PM
Modified: 3/19/2022 9:56:27 PM

Over the last few months, a fascinating case of small-town politics has been playing out in Plainfield.

In December, longtime residents Paul and Nancy Franklin applied for a building permit to allow for construction of a single-family house on an undeveloped 170-acre parcel they’ve owned since 1990. Paul Franklin, who grew up on a farm near the property, is Plainfield’s elected town moderator. (I’ll get to the significance of that shortly.)

Although mostly forested, the secluded parcel off Farm Road includes two large fields with views of Ascutney and Killington mountains. For better or worse, depending on your point of view, it’s an ideal spot for a luxury estate.

A few years ago, the Franklins were asking $285,000 for the land, according to an online marketplace that showcases “top-tier” rural real estate from across the country.

The Franklins have since taken the property off the market. I suspect they were having trouble finding potential buyers, due in no small part to a town ordinance that could be a deal-breaker for anyone thinking about putting up a house off a so-called Class VI road in Plainfield.

The town requires anyone who wants to build off the beaten path to pay for bringing up the Class VI road leading to a proposed house site to town standards. (In New Hampshire, a Class VI road is a public but unmaintained thoroughfare.)

A 100-foot section at the start of Farm Road connects to Stage Road, a state highway, and is maintained by the town. Widening and improving the less-than-half-mile stretch of Farm Road to a potential home site would likely cost the Franklins — or any future owner of the property — a minimum of $200,000.

In their permit application, the Franklins asked the Selectboard to grant what’s known under state law as a “reasonable exception.” It would allow for a new house without having to bring the road to it up to town standards. Essentially, while still owned by the town and accessible to the public, much of Farm Road would become a long driveway.

The town wouldn’t be responsible for its upkeep, which brings into question whether fire trucks, police cruisers and other emergency vehicles could reach the site, if called upon. (The state requires property owners who build off Class VI roads to sign liability waivers, but there’s some legal questions whether such a document is all-inclusive.)

Last month, the Selectboard denied the Franklins’ permit application. Among other things, the board was worried about setting a precedent. If the Franklins received the go-ahead, other property owners could argue they, too, should be allowed to construct houses without footing the bill for Class VI road improvements.

In other words, if an elected town official can do it, why can’t we?

Paul Franklin, 69, has held several elected and appointed positions in town over the years. As the town moderator, he presides over the annual Town Meeting. He’s also served on the Selectboard and Planning Board. At the state level, he’s former chairman of the New Hampshire Board of Taxes and Land Appeals, which hears contested cases about local and state taxes.

To better understand what’s taking place in Plainfield at the moment, it helps to go back about 35 years. In the 1980s, some housing developers saw rural parts of Plainfield as a land of opportunity, which meant building off the town’s 24 miles of Class VI roads. Finding the trend worrisome, Plainfield officials wanted to put on the brakes.

Franklin was among the residents who supported tightening up development rules. At a Selectboard meeting in September 1986, Franklin expressed concerns about building off Class VI roads and suggested ways that “could be helpful in restricting some development,” according to minutes of the meeting.

In 1987, the Selectboard adopted an ordinance that prohibited the issuance of building permits where proposed homes were accessible only by Class VI roads.

In the 35 years since, the Selectboard has never approved a residential building permit for property accessed from a Class VI road. In at least four cases, however, the Selectboard has given approval to property owners who upgraded short sections of Class VI roads to Class V status, which the town now maintains.

In 1993, the ordinance was affirmed and rewritten to “clarify when building permits could be issued for work on existing, pre-1987 building whose access is a Class VI highway,” the Selectboard wrote in a Feb. 16 letter to the Franklins.

(A house, roughly 500 feet up Farm Road, was built before the ordinance was adopted. The owner maintains that section of road.)

In denying the Franklins’ permit request, the Selectboard wrote the purpose of the ordinance was to “ensure development in town was not scattered and premature and that provision of town services would be accomplished using town maintained highways.”

Before making its decision, the Selectboard consulted the Planning Board, which agreed the ordinance “continues to have value to the orderly development of the community.”

In Plainfield, however, the Selectboard doesn’t have final say on building permits. Its decisions can be appealed to the Zoning Board.

The way town government is set up in Plainfield, which has about 2,500 residents, the authority to appoint members to the Zoning Board rests with the town moderator — the elected position that Paul Franklin has held for about a decade.

Since he became moderator, Franklin has picked one new member and re-appointed four others.

On Monday, Franklin took his case to the Zoning Board. I’m told it was the first time since the ordinance regarding Class VI roads originally was adopted that the board had heard an appeal.

Franklin told the board that he didn’t agree with the Selectboard’s viewpoint that granting a building permit in the case would “open the floodgates to scattered development” in town.

Watching the proceedings from the meeting room’s back row, I didn’t need long to figure out where the board was headed.

Upgrading the road to town standards is “overkill for a one-house lot,” Zoning Board Chairman Richard Colburn said.

The board spent much of the three-hour meeting trying to figure out how “there’s a way to do this so the Franklins can build a house up there” and not “trigger some other concerns” that people might have, board member Brad Atwater said.

The board agreed with Franklin that the parcel off Farm Road was a “unique” property. It has 200 feet of frontage to Stage Road, the state highway connecting Route 120 to 12A. But to gain access to their property from Stage Road, the Franklins would have to build a bridge across Blow-Me-Down Brook and pass through wetlands.

Taking that route would be “much more disruptive to the environment,” Atwater said.

What the Franklins have requested qualifies as a “reasonable exception,” Colburn said.

It will be interesting to see if there’s any fallout in town. As Eric Brann, who was the Selectboard’s chairman when the Franklins’ permit was denied, put it when I called him: “The optics are not good.”

(Brann’s term as chairman expired last week, but he remains on the three-person board.)

From everything I’ve heard, the Franklins, who live on River Road, are respected and well-liked in Plainfield. Riverview Farm, their apple orchard and pick-your-own operation off 12A, is an Upper Valley gem.

They purchased the property off Farm Road for $132,500, according to Sullivan County land records. In the mid-1800s, the property was home to the “Town Poor Farm,” where residents who had fallen on hard times could live and work. In the 30 years the Franklins have owned the land, they’ve been good stewards.

In 2004, they reached an agreement with the nonprofit Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests on a conservation easement deed. The easement ensures the “protection of the property for outdoor recreation” by the public. The land is open to hiking, snowshoeing, hunting and other recreational activities. The Franklins also allow snowmobilers to use trails that run through the property, although not covered by the easement.

The property, which is either 170 acres or 157 acres, depending on different town records, is enrolled in the state’s current use program. Last year, the property tax bill was $212 on 157 acres.

Originally, the Franklins carved out enough acreage for two houses, but have reduced it to one lot of 7 acres.

On Tuesday, I talked with Paul Franklin about the Zoning Board, which a day earlier had overruled the Selectboard in his favor.

 

With Franklin controlling who sits on the Zoning Board, I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue a conflict of interest — real or perceived — exists. That’s not good government.

To his credit, Franklin acknowledges it’s a “very delicate situation. I’ve been very sensitive to these things.”

As he reminded the Zoning Board at the outset of Monday’s meeting, “We all know each other; it’s a small town. There are more positives (to that) than negatives.”

In a small town like Plainfield, “we deal with issues and get past personalities,” he told me later.

Now that the Zoning Board has approved the building permit, which is good for a year and can be renewed, Franklin told me he’s not sure what the future holds. The property could go back on the market or remain in his family.

Either way, thanks to the Plainfield Zoning Board, the road to development is all clear.

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

CORRECTION: Paul and Nancy Franklin, of Plainfield, purchased a Sullivan County property for $132,500. A previous version of this column reported the incorrect county and purchase price.
 




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