Residents in Mount Holly are taking sides over a proposal to build a new town garage. Most people agree a new garage is needed and many like the $500,000 proposal the local select board has been developing.
But several dozen others in town are upset and say the community has been improperly shut out of the planning process.
Annette Lynch chairs the Mount Holly Planning Commission. She 30 other local residents have hired an attorney and threatened to sue the town because they feel the select board has violated the state’s Open Meeting Law by not providing adequate information about the new garage.
“I think it’s disingenuous to say they informed the town,” says Lynch. The communication between the town and the community on this project has been very poorly articulated.
In a letter outlining the group’s concerns Attorney Wanda Otero alleges that “During the entire time the new Town Garage was being planned - March, 2008 through September, 2012 - no substantive information. She notes that “There is no mention of the project in any special meeting or in any annual Town Meeting or Town Report from 2008 through 2013.”
Otero’s letter goes on to say the word garage only appears 3 times in select board minutes during those 5 years.
Annette Lynch says one of the main goals of Mt. Holly’s town plan, which she helped draft, is to ensure local residents are involved in every stage of planning and decision-making.
“As a planning commissioner, you’re in a position to know what’s going on at a different level from the average citizen,” says Lynch. “If you’re in that situation and you see things that really could be better and should be being done and maybe the town is proceeding not quite as legally as it should,” says Lynch, “then you’ve got some responsibility.”
Members of the local select board wouldn’t comment for this story but their Attorney Jim Carroll disputes the group’s allegations. “This has been going on for four or five years from what I can see of the public record - a very extensive public record of meetings that have occurred through multiple bodies.” Carroll says “all the documentation that the board is considering is available to the public and can be requested and looked at and in fact has been provided.”
But Annette Lynch says that’s not entirely true because in the minutes and agendas the garage project is identified as the Salt Shed Property, which she says is confusing.
“People are not going to come to meetings unless they know what’s going to be discussed and what the nature of the discussion is going to be,” says Lnch. “So something that says salt shed property is not going to bring out people that are concerned about the garage. “
But town clerk Sue Covalla says 382 local voters recently signed a petition in support of the select board and their handling of the town garage. “I feel there’s been a lot of discussion,” says Covalla. “It’s been over five years and I think the majority of the people that signed the petition in support of the selectmen feel that way.”
Covalla says any new garage proposal will have to be approved by voters anyway. She says the threatened lawsuit has just delayed the project and cost the town in legal bills.
Meanwhile members of the group concerned about the project will meet Sunday to decide if they will move ahead with their lawsuit.