CONWAY — The Conway Planning Board unanimously voted May 9 to approve a four-lot subdivision for a 29.6-parcel of land on Banfill Road, off Tasker Hill Road in Conway.
Voting in favor were Bill Barbin, Ben Colbath, Steve Steiner and chair Steve Hartmann.
However, the proverbial elephant in the room was not the subdivision approval itself but the goal behind it: Abutters say it was created to make way for a 30-unit structure on the southernmost of the four lots, possibly for senior or workforce housing.
That issue was raised by selectmen’s representative Steve Porter and board member Colbath, but they and audience members were told by Town Planner Tom Irving that that was not under the board’s purview to discuss that night.
Irving said such questions would have to wait until a site-plan review request is received by the town. As of last Thursday, the day of the meeting, none had been.
The subdivision request was made by Joseph and Donna Mori of Conway and Avesta Housing Development Corp. of Portland, Maine. The Moris have an agreement to sell their 29 acres to Avesta.
Both were represented at the meeting by Josh McAllister of HEB Engineers of North Conway, who was accompanied by engineer Patrick Hess of Avesta.
Hess in a May 8 interview with the Sun confirmed that Avesta hopes to build the 30-unit building as phase one on the site of the barn, a former horse riding stable, that sits at the southern end of the property.
He said it could be three stories, which, southern abutter Russ Lanoie of Madison and others say would alter the character of the rural neighborhood.
Hess said plans for the three lots that would be created under the subdivision request on an extension of Banfill Road have not been determined but said his company would no doubt work with the MWV Housing Coalition on workforce housing or other options.
The fourth lot is where the barn is.
Detractors say the subdivision was requested so the developer would have four votes to outweigh the three held by Banfill Road subdivision abutters who have covenants that prohibit the building of any housing in the Banfill subdivision of less than 1,500 square feet.
Avesta would create apartments as small as 750 square feet, according to abutter Don Litchko.
Banfill property owner Stirling Perrin could not attend the May 9 meeting, but Irving read aloud a letter from him saying, “This is nothing but an attempt to step on the rights of Banfill residents."
Other owners of the covenant are residents Noel Lockwood, Gabriel Russo and Cathy Morse Russo.
Hess affirmed at the meeting that Avesta chose to pursue the four-lot subdivision to get those four votes after attempts to negotiate with the covenant owners failed.
“Wouldn’t it have been better to build in the future homes that meet what the covenants had stated rather than try and circumvent what they had said?” Porter asked.
“We did approach the homeowners to change the covenant; it was only when they said no that we came to this,” said Hess.
That led to a comment from Bill Barbin that that approach “was not a very warm and fuzzy way to come into the community, was it?”
Colbath asked Hess if Avesta would be willing to turn those additional lots into conservation acreage, as had originally appeared on the plan but which went away with the four-lot subdivision request. Hess was noncommital, but Colbath said Hess told him after the meeting he was open to the idea.
Irving said he had contacted the New Hampshire Municipal Association for legal advice and was told that the planning board does not react to civil disputes and that the covenant issue appeared to be a civil dispute that could be addressed in Carroll County Superior Court.
“Whether or not they are changing voting shares is not your purview,” Irving told board members.
Hartmann then opened up discussion to the public, during which Litchko urged the board to delay taking a vote on the four-lot subdivision request until the civil issue is resolved.
That was later countered by Irving, who said there is a time clock under New Hampshire law that once the board accepts an application as complete, there is a 65-day window for acting on a project. “So,” said Irving, “you do have a time limit.”
He added that there are provisions for when a legal challenge is aired.
In response to questions about the potential 30-unit building, Irving said the site-plan review is a separate process from the issue before the board, the request for a subdivision to create the four lots.
Others raised concerns about the potential for Avesta to possibly build affordable housing units on the proposed extension to the north of Banfill Road.
Hess affirmed that Avesta would possibly explore that option with the MWV Housing Coalition in the future but reiterated what he had told the Sun, that the 30-unit building to the south end of the parcel remained Avesta’s focus.
Tasker Hill resident Peter Ames raised concerns about increased traffic on Tasker Hill Road, but Irving said the town’s traffic consultant, Gorrill Palmer of South Portland, Maine, did not find anything that would stop the subdivision request.
After nearly an hour, Hartmann brought the discussion to a close, saying, “I sympathize on the one hand, but the request is what it is.”
Earlier in the discussion, McAllister had noted that in March, the Moris and Avesta had requested a special exception to allow a wetland and/or stream crossing for proposed access and utilities in the Wetlands and Watershed Protection Overlay District.
According to the March 20 meeting minutes, McAllister said the intent was to reconstruct the existing driveway into the horse barn, which currently crosses the wetland buffer.
By a 4-0 vote, the ZBA found that the applicant satisfied the requirements and granted the special exception.
According to its website, Avesta Housing is a non-profit affordable housing provider founded in 1972 with “years of experience as a leader in affordable housing development and property management in southern Maine and New Hampshire.”
Its mission is to “improve lives and strengthen communities by promoting and providing quality affordable homes for people in need.”