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Zoning To Oppose Casella Landfill Plan Divides Small North Country Town

Annie Ropeik
Dalton residents are divided over plans to introduce new zoning regulations with the goal of blocking the landfill.

The solid waste company Casella says it's running out of space for Northern New England's trash. So it's taking the rare step of planning a brand-new landfill, in the small Coös County town of Dalton.

Lots of locals agree – they don't want the landfill. But they're divided on one potential tool to block it: zoning.

The signs of conflict are obvious as soon as you hit the outskirts of the town, which has fewer than 1,000 residents and sits adjacent to Littleton, Whitefield and Bethlehem.

House after house literally sports lawn signs. Some say "Save Dalton - no zoning." One pro-zoning sign says "vote yes - no landfill." It's been spray-painted over, in dripping purple letters, with the word "lie."

"Things usually don't get this heated about any certain issue up here,” says Stephen Pelletier, Jr. , who manages the Dalton Country Store. "People can usually, like, live and debate pretty passively. But for whatever reason, this has been a little bit more of a fiery one." 

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
The Dalton Country Store sported anti-zoning signs before the recent special town meeting.

Dalton, like about 20 other New Hampshire towns, has never had a formal zoning ordinance. And some like it that way.

Stephen Pelletier has anti-zoning signs outside his store – but that doesn't mean he's a fan of the proposed dump. 

"Nobody really wants the landfill,” he says. “But the reality of it is - really what zoning is going to be is a little bit more leverage, but it's not going to officially stop them." 

Supporters say zoning is the town's best chance to reject the landfill, which they worry will pollute their water, depress their property values and drive away tourists.

'This gives us a chance'

Last week, hundreds of Dalton residents packed into the muggy municipal gym to vote on adopting a temporary zoning ordinance.

It uses basic, boilerplate language from state statute, making the whole town an agricultural residential district. It would create a local zoning board of appeals to approve any major new construction projects that don't fit with that use. 

From there, Dalton has to decide whether and how to put permanent zoning on the books. Town officials say they've been studying options for zoning for years -- it's even part of the decades-old, recently renewed local master plan.

They'd have until town meeting in 2021 to either propose a new ordinance, decide to make the temporary one premanent, or vote against pursuing permanent zoning altogether. 

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Dalton resident and lead anti-landfill organizer Jon Swan testifies at the special town meeting on his emergency zoning proposal.

In the weeks before the vote, Casella, the landfill developer, sent out mailers and backed social media campaigns that many saw as anti-zoning. And locals like Jacques Reno came to the meeting primed for debate.

"I think it's the character of the town not to have zoning,” he said during public testimony at the town meeting.

He and others worry zoning means government infringement and higher costs for local businesses.

Zoning supporters say the change would give people in Dalton a voice. Jon Swan is leading the opposition to the dump. The zoning plan was his idea.

"This gives us a chance - it empowers you, the citizens of this town, with the opportunity - a chance - a fighting chance, to stop this,” he testified.

At Swan's three-minute time limit, town moderator Christine Ordinetz tried to cut him off. 

“Three minutes, sir, thank you,” she said. When Swan tried to continue his comments, an uproar broke out. Ordinetz, who’d tried to discourage commenters from specifically discussing Casella, raised her voice repeatedly as she told Swan to take his seat.

Jacques Reno, the zoning opponent, was glaring at Swan, and Swan glared back. A nearby police officer took a step forward. Finally, Swan sat back down. 

"Let's be civil to one another,” Ordinetz said as the meeting settled down.

In the end, Dalton voted to approve the temporary zoning ordinance. It wasn't even that close - 154 to 129 votes.

'The first battle in the war'

Jon Swan says it's only part of his anti-landfill strategy. 

"Ultimately this is just the first battle in the war,” he says.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Dalton voted in late July to adopt its first-ever zoning ordinance, a chance some residents hope will be used to block Casella's proposed landfill.

Among other next steps, he says he's setting up monitoring of local water supplies, to get a baseline of data in case the landfill comes to pass and causes contamination. 

That's what a federal lawsuit alleges is happening in neighboring Bethlehem. A nonprofit says they found contamination from Casella's existing landfill there in the Ammonoosuc River. 

The Vermont-based company did not respond to interview requests for this story. But they have their own worries about the Bethlehem landfill - they've said previously that it'll be full by 2024. And voters in Bethlehem have twice rejected plans for expansion

This is what brought Casella to Dalton. The proposed landfill still faces years of state permitting. But in a statement after the zoning vote, a spokesman said the new temporary ordinance will not preclude them from pursuing it. 

'This is what we have'

The site Casella wants to use is inside a big, forested piece of land - about 1,900 acres, already home to a gravel pit, and directly adjacent to Forest Lake State Park.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
The proposed landfill site would sit less than half a mile from Forest Lake State Park.

It's one of the state's original 10 state parks. The 180-acre landfill site, inside that parcel, would sit about half a mile from the lake. 

On a recent night, the water at the park was awash in sunset colors, surrounded by trees and distant mountains. Kids were swimming, and families were barbequing.

Kristi Grimard and Megan Webster sit at a picnic table. They grew up together in Dalton, and say protecting Forest Lake feels like as much a cornerstone of local culture as the lack of zoning seems to be. 

Asked why the landfill seems like such an emotional issue for residents, Grimard says, “Probably because everybody's grown up here. Like, they don't want change.”

“There's nothing here for us - this is what we have,” Webster adds. “Don't take it away." 

They say they know the region's trash will have to go somewhere. They just don't want it here. 

Map: A rendering superimposing Casella's conceptual landfill site plan over a Google map. Click here to see Casella's plan, which includes details of the proposed site.  

An illustration of Casella's landfill proposal superimposed on a Google map.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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