Pickle Festival saved; racetrack regulations are disqualified at our Town Meeting
WINCHESTER — Residents aren’t ready to sour on a popular town festival, or willing at this time to take steps to add restrictions, such as turning down the volume, at three racetracks.
A volunteer group, Winchester Proud, has made it possible for the Pickle Festival to survive another year, announcing at the town’s deliberative session Saturday morning it would take on the event. In the meantime, two petition warrant articles to further regulate Monadnock Speedway, Winchester Motorsports and Winchester Speedpark were disqualified during the five-plus hour meeting.Meghan Foley can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MFoleyKS.
Roughly 80 people piled into Winchester Town Hall, including a small but forceful out-of-town pro-racetrack contingent. The town has about 2,480 registered voters.
Thirty-five warrant articles came before voters, including abolishing the Winchester Budget Committee (it was amended), and approving a town budget of more than $3 million (it was moved along, but not before a $26,000 increase).
Three other petition warrant articles, if passed, would direct town officials to take certain actions opposing the proposed construction of a pipeline by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, which is a Kinder Morgan Company.
The articles were moved to the warrant, but not before lengthy debate between those for and against the project.
The Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. is proposing construction of a 36-inch pipeline to carry natural gas from shale gas fields in Pennsylvania through upstate New York, part of Northern Massachusetts and into Southern New Hampshire before going to a distribution hub in Eastern Massachusetts.
The Monadnock Region communities in the path of the pipeline include Winchester, Richmond, Fitzwilliam, Troy and Rindge.
“This is our chance let a multiple-billion-dollar company know this is our town not their town,” Resident Rick Horton said.
Resident Richard Whittemore, a self-described “filthy capitalist,” said there is a shortage of power plants feeding the electric grid, and he’d like to be able to hook into a cheaper energy source.
He added that when the region loses electricity because there aren’t enough power plants, those opposing the pipeline are going to be “the biggest cry babies of all.”
Horton disagreed, saying New Hampshire produces more electricity than it uses, and as the project is being presented there are no provisions to deliver natural gas to Winchester or any towns in the path of the pipeline.
Meanwhile, the town’s Pickle Festival was in doubt after the event’s committee chairwoman, Roberta A. Fraser, also selectmen chairwoman, stepped down earlier. When no person or group stepped up, the selectmen dropped recommended funding for the festival from $4,000, a traditional amount, to $1.
But Horton and the group Winchester Proud offered to take on the work. An amendment by Fraser to restore funding to $4,000 passed, moving the article on to the warrant.
Horton, chairman of the Winchester School Board, said he’d “hate to see it go away.” He said he started Winchester Proud last summer as a Facebook page; the group’s mission is to better the community and make it a place people can be proud of, he said.
Resident Robert E. Davis, spokesman for the Winchester Noise Coalition, proposed two warrant articles seeking to enact further regulations on the racetracks. One warrant article asked voters to require selectmen to adopt bylaws for the regulation of racetracks that address hours and days of operation, limiting the number of race practice days to one four-hour slot per week, limiting the number of event days per year, and developing permit requirements for operators of the tracks.
A second warrant article sought voter approval to activate temporary regulations that would be valid until the next annual town meeting.
Those regulations would include requiring racetrack owners to install sound-engineered noise barriers and ensure every participating vehicle has a muffler that meets or exceeds the manufacturer’s specifications to reduce exhaust and engine noise.
Town Moderator Denis V. Murphy 2rd read a letter from town counsel saying the first warrant article was “void, illegal and unenforceable” because town meeting can’t force the selectmen to enact bylaws that state laws give them the ability to adopt at the board’s discretion.
Davis defended the warrant articles saying that he and the coalition’s 131 members aren’t trying to put the racetracks out of business, but make them better neighbors.
“All we want to do is have one day a weekend of enjoyment of our homes,” he said. “I ask when you vote to remember there are several coalition members with horror stories of their children crying in pain because of the noise.”
His remarks were interrupted by boos, moans and hisses from some in the audience.
Undeterred, Davis continued speaking for several more minutes, until Murphy asked him to stop — twice. Davis continued, and Murphy called Police Chief Gary A. Phillips to escort Davis from the microphone. Davis kept talking as Phillips approached and Murphy called a recess. Davis then stopped talking and sat down.
Discussion continued with several pro-racetrack speakers drawing applause for their comments.
Horton said the benefits of having clean, functional racetracks in Winchester far outweigh the negative effects.
“We are proud to have racing in this town; it’s what Winchester is known for,” he said.
Resident Margaret A. Sharra, town code enforcement officer and land-use administrator, said the racetracks are regulated by the selectmen through the permitting process, but two of the tracks were established in the 1950s and ‘60s before zoning laws.
The combined property assessment for the tracks is $1.7 million, and the businesses pay more than $48,000 in taxes a year, she said, noting that they’re also involved in the community.
The majority of voters changed both articles before placing them on the warrant.
The first article was amended to include the language “not enforceable by law.” The second article was replaced to read, “To see if the town would vote to continue operating motor vehicle race tracks in town as currently in effect.”
A sparring match between selectmen, former and current budget committee members and residents marked debate over the issue of whether to abolish the budget committee. While many residents argued the committee is needed as part of check-and-balance oversight of town government, selectmen said they weren’t doing their job and some members weren’t making decisions in the best interest of the town.
As an example, Fraser said, the budget committee voted not to make recommendations on the proposed budgets for the town water and sewer departments, which is likely going to result in litigation costs.
Budget Committee member Kenneth Cole tried to defend his board’s actions, but Fraser and Selectman Theresa G. Sepe had strong words for him and other committee members.
“Right now, we spend more on litigation than anything else,” Sepe said. “Is that truly how you want a committee to run? It’s adversarial, and it’s not good for me, you or the community.”
The article was amended to see if the town will continue the budget committee, instead of abolishing it, before being moved to the warrant.
In other business, voters sent the town’s proposed 2015-16 operating budget to the warrant after adding $26,000 at the selectmen’s request. The proposed budget is now $3,410,489, an increase of $111,872, or about 3.4 percent, from the 2014-15 operating budget of $3,298,617 that voters approved last year.
As an official-ballot town, Winchester residents are allowed to discuss and amend town meeting warrant articles during the deliberative session. Residents vote by ballot on the warrant articles March 10.