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Dalton Approves Zoning That Could Block Planned Casella Landfill

Annie Ropeik

The North Country town of Dalton on Tuesday night approved temporary zoning rules that some residents hope will block a proposed landfill near a state park.

The town of about 1,000 residents was one of fewer than 20 in New Hampshire with no zoning ordinance.

Dalton’s new zoning was approved by a vote of 154 to 129 in the packed, humid town gym Tuesday, after a short round of public comments that turned heated at times.

The new ordinance uses what officials called “bare-bones,” boilerplate language from state law to make the entire town a “district of residential agricultural use.”

It means in future, most major new commercial or industrial construction projects will have to submit a site plan to town officials and win a special exception to proceed. The ordinance also states:

"No business, commercial or industrial venture or use shall be permitted which could cause any undue hazard to health, safety or property values or which is offensive to the public because of noise, vibration, excessive traffic, unsanitary conditions, noxious odor, smoke or other similar reason."

The decision adds another hurdle for Vermont-based Casella, which is behind the landfill proposal and says it needs more space for trash in the North Country.

The company already operates a large landfill in neighboring Bethlehem. The facility is near capacity, and also faces a federal lawsuit for allegedly polluting the Amonoosuc River. Bethlehem voters have twice denied Casella's request for a permit to expand. 

Casella spokesman Joe Fusco says Dalton's new zoning rules “do not preclude the process of pursuing a potential landfill.”

The project is still in its early planning phase and faces a state permitting process that could take years. There's no guarantee local zoning will be able to block it. 

Still, Casella appeared to advocate against the new zoning in mailers sent to residents and online in recent weeks.

“As an organization, we felt it was our obligation to help inform the citizens because the vote was a result of our exploration of the industrial park in their town as a possible landfill site,” Fusco says.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
Landfill opponent Jon Swan speaks in favor of the interim zoning ordinance, which he proposed, at Tuesday's special town meeting in Dalton.

Local opponents of zoning are concerned it will infringe on personal property rights and depress Dalton's rural economy. And they say it's not clear the ordinance can help block the landfill proposal. 

Dalton resident Jon Swan led the effort to get the temporary zoning rules passed. He fears the landfill will pollute Forest Lake State Park and disrupt Dalton’s rural character.

Swan, who runs a website devoted to the issue, says last night's vote will give Dalton a bigger voice in approving the landfill.

"But ultimately this is just the first battle in the war," he says. 

Selectmen will now have to choose an impartial zoning board of appeals, from local applicants, to work with the existing planning board on enforcing the new rules.

Officials say the town has until March 2021, two town meetings from now, to decide if and how to vote more permanent zoning onto the books.

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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