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Jim Kenyon: Over and Over and Orford Again

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, December 02, 2018

When I mentioned to my wife that I was headed to a public board meeting in Orford the other night, she had only one thing to say: “Again?”

I can’t help myself.

To better understand the country’s cultural divide, why spend my evenings flipping between MSNBC and Fox News when Orford is just a short drive away?

Orford, population 1,269, is a cautionary tale of what can happen when people in a small town splinter into different camps. I’m not talking just natives versus newcomers. Nearly every Upper Valley community deals with that friction at one time or another.

In Orford, the divide runs much deeper — and hotter.

“You’ve got working stiffs like me and rich people who get mad if they don’t get their way,” said Selectboard member Jim McGoff, who owns a salvage yard in town. “We’re clashing all the time.”

On Oct. 9, the town’s Planning Board held a public hearing on its revised master plan — the general guide that communities use to steer development — and that same night voted, 6-1, to adopt the plan. Four residents showed up. They were joined by a state trooper and a Grafton County sheriff’s deputy, who were brought in to keep the peace.

They failed, apparently.

At the next evening’s Selectboard meeting, McGoff, the Selectboard’s representative to the Planning Board, reported that following the vote, he’d been physically threatened and verbally abused by another board member, Terry Martin, who was the sole dissenter. Planning Board Chairman Paul Carreiro said he had witnessed it.

Now fast forward to last Tuesday night’s Planning Board meeting, I’m fairly certain the 20 residents who crammed into the town office building’s conference room hadn’t come to hear about lot line adjustments — a topic the board devoted 45 minutes to at the outset.

Which led a resident to whisper, “Do you think they’re just stalling so all of us will give up and go home?”

I wasn’t sure. But the comment spoke to the level of mistrust that some Orford residents have of their elected officials.

After nearly two hours, the board got around to the agenda items that most residents had braved slushy roads for. Martin, a retired banker, started off by explaining that shortly after the Oct. 9 public hearing he had left on a trip to South Africa. He wasn’t aware of McGoff’s statements until his return home.

“I take great umbrage in the mischaracterization of my remarks to Mr. McGoff following the hearing,” Martin said. “I did not at any time threaten or verbally abuse Mr. McGoff.”

Martin noted that the two law enforcement officers on hand hadn’t felt any need to intervene.

When it was his turn to talk, McGoff said that on the night in question, Martin had gone on a finger-wagging and screaming tirade against him. “I don’t know why you’re lying about this,” McGoff said. “You’re not man enough to admit it. You’re a bully.”

Three other board members, including McGoff’s wife, Deb, disputed Martin’s version of events. Resident Carl Schmidt, who had attended the public hearing, defended Martin. “The account given to the Selectboard the following night was highly exaggerated,” he said.

But residents had more on their minds than just the Martin-McGoff dust-up. They blamed the low attendance at October’s public hearing on a lack of publicity. They wanted to know why Planning Board meeting minutes and agendas aren’t posted on the town listserv.

Carreiro said other board members and residents can post information — just don’t expect him to do it. The Orford listserv is a “place that many people don’t want to go near,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with the bullies and the hostilities.”

The back-and-forth morphed into a debate on the revised master plan and how it was crafted. The Planning Board made little attempt to involve residents in the process, Martin said.

He’s concerned — along with many others in town — that the revised plan doesn’t take a tough enough stance on development. It doesn’t address cellphone towers or high-rise buildings, Martin told me later.

“The nastiest word in Orford is zoning,” said Martin, who moved to town in 2004. “There is a middle ground. A master plan can direct development without having the teeth of a zoning ordinance.”

At last Tuesday’s meeting, Carreiro, who is a federal government security consultant, didn’t hesitate to play the populist card. He talked about wanting to give “disenfranchised” residents a voice in town government.

At one point, Carreiro pushed open the meeting room’s back door and pointed to the parking lot. “There are a lot of brand new, nice cars out there,” he said.

“It’s one thing to champion the people who are less fortunate, but it’s also important to take into account the good of the community overall,” Martin responded.

Carreiro mentioned that he and Martin might disagree 99.9 percent of the time. “No, it’s 100 percent,” Martin replied.

Faith Knapp, the town’s 74-year-old health officer, didn’t go to the meeting with the intention of speaking up. But I’m glad she did.

“It’s pretty disheartening to see the divisiveness in this town,” said Knapp, who was sitting in the far corner of the room. “There’s enough of that right now in the country. We don’t need to be part of that.

“It’s a shame on all of us.”

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