By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
The Fairhaven Selectboard and the Zoning Board of Appeals met jointly on 9/21 for a discussion on training opportunities for ZBA members that resulted in a plea from the ZBA for support beyond training and education.
Selectboard Chairperson Daniel Freitas turned it to over to Selectboard member Bob Espindola “because this is Bob’s,” said Mr. Freitas, who was immediately irritated by Mr. Espindola’s passing out of written information to fellow board members.
How many times did he have to tell Mr. Espindola to stop presenting papers during a meeting, Mr. Frietas wondered aloud, adding that in the past he has cautioned Mr. Espindola that he would “table these things from now on” because he does not like to be handed new information on the spot during meetings.
Mr. Freitas let out a long and loud sigh and started to fashion a motion of sorts to table the matter but then replaced a potential motion with a “This has got to stop.”
Mr. Espindola defended himself and his handout saying he had Robert’s Rules of Order on his side, which allows him to present in writing whatever he was prepared to state verbally, not to make the meeting longer, which was Mr. Freitas’ concern with a packed agenda, but in order to streamline the discussion and as a courtesy to his fellow board members.
Instead, Mr. Freitas said it was not fair to the board to have to read along while Mr. Espindola speaks and that Mr. Espindola could have just emailed it for the board to review over the weekend.
Mr. Espindola said that he did email the points of discussion to the other members, but maintained that it would be a violation of the Open Meeting law to include any written form of the motion he would propose during the meeting.
As the ZBA waited and the clock ticked on, Mr. Freitas expressed his frustration further and lamented over how interactions between the two gentlemen such as this one wind up with emails and comments about, for example, “How I interrupt and how I’m rude and mean to you,” said Mr. Freitas.
“I now believe that you are doing this on purpose,” he stated.
Seemingly unaffected by the accusation, Mr. Espindola took his written statement and explained how one of the fiscal year 2021 goals of the Selectboard was to offer appointed board members opportunities for training and, after conversations with Director of Planning and Economic Development Paul Foley, the former building commissioner, and town counsel, that it might be valuable for the ZBA, and the Selectboard as well, to consider.
“I’m certainly willing to attend the training,’ said Mr. Espindola, “and it could be — if anyone in here tonight wants to have a specific topic other than what was presented to us by Mr. Foley in the packet — just speak up.”
It would be totally voluntary, he said, and not everyone on the board would need to attend.
ZBA Chairperson Peter DeTerra said most of the ZBA members have undergone training before, and suggested that instead of making the ZBA attend the Selectboard meeting that perhaps Mr. Espindola should have attended a ZBA meeting to discuss the issue.
Mr. DeTerra said he knew there could be some improvements in ZBA matters, but credited any apparent struggle with insufficient support from Building Department staff. Most notably, he said. Board members are not being provided with the information packet ahead of meetings, which the board would historically receive in hand one month prior to the next meeting. Perhaps it was due to a high turnaround in staff, he suggested, and he emphasized the importance of receiving the packets early.
ZBA member Francis Cox loudly expressed his own discontent with packets being undelivered, and called out with a need for support from the Town.
At one point, Mr. Espindola suggested either town counsel or the interim building commissioner should attend ZBA meetings to support the board as it deliberates the appeals before them.
“They say they need support during every meeting,” said Mr. Espindola. “Now you are asking that, and we are saying that we will provide that for you.”
He said any upcoming training could include staff as well so that the board can inform them what it needs in order to conduct business.
He asked Mr. DeTerra: “How does the town staff identify what they need to provide in the packet, and when do they know that?”
“Well, we’re a volunteer board,” said Mr. DeTerra, “so it goes through the Building Department,” which he said prepares the packet, photocopies all the plans, and gives to the ZBA one month in advance.
Town Administrator Mark Rees said he would ask the interim building commissioner to assist with that, and Mr. Rees said he would meet with Mr. DeTerra to discuss what improvements can be made to give the ZBA the support it needs and possibly attend meetings regularly until a new building commissioner is found.
Town Counsel Thomas Crotty was relieved, because he had “no great desire” to attend all ZBA meetings, as he put it.
Mr. Espindola reassured the ZBA that his offer for training should not be taken out of context and meant to suggest he is criticizing the board.
“What I’m trying to do is help you and provide the structure … to do the best job that you can,” said Mr. Espindola.
Mr. Freitas suggested more funding for training be added into the budget for all town departments and boards.
The ZBA members stayed at the meeting to listen to Patrick Carr, owner of A-1 Crane, who had his request for executive session meeting minutes put onto the agenda out of frustration for allegedly not having received the information he requested back in January.
Mr. Crotty explained how executive session minutes are kept, approved, and then released to the public, but argued that a request to appear on an agenda to seek access to the minutes was not part of the proper procedure.
Mr. Freitas said he preferred to hear from Mr. Carr, who claims that a Cease and Desist Order from former Building Commissioner Kristian White is causing him an undue financial burden as he settles a zoning-related appeal for a second time. Although the board could not adjudicate the matter, Mr. Freitas allowed Mr. Carr to speak.
According to Mr. Carr, he has been trying to retrieve executive session minutes with “zero response.”
Mr. Rees said that, despite the allegations, he has responded to the various requests, but the work has been extensive and time consuming. Furthermore, there are “volumes” of executive session minutes still to go through the approval and public release process.
“This is still a pending matter and therefore it’s appropriate to keep them in executive session. It’s still an outstanding legal matter … to protect the town’s legal interest,” said Mr. Rees.
Mr. Carr said he believed the Town was targeting his business after an abutter began complaining about the scale of his operation.
“This is hanging over my head,” said Mr. Carr. “They’re trying to run us out of town. They’re trying to shut us down.”
He said he suspected that Mr. Espindola’s suggestion of ZBA procedure during the 7/13 Selectboard meeting had something to do with his case, saying Mr. Espindola’s mention of having the ZBA work closer with the Planning Department relative to following the Master Plan “sparked his interest” because “this is what this entire case is on.”
The current appeal goes back to a January 2013 case when Jerry Bettencourt, owner of Jerry’s Auto and Cycle, was cited for unauthorized Industrial zone activity in a Mixed Use zone. The auto repair shop had been working on some of Carr’s larger equipment, which he also stored at Bettencourt’s site, prompting a neighbor to complain. However, the zoning used to be Industrial until it was changed in 1997, said Mr. Carr, unbeknownst to either Mr. Bettencourt or Mr. Carr, he said.
“There was no correspondence or notification to any of these owners that their zoning had changed,” said Mr. Carr. From 1997-2013, he said, neither one knew.
In 2013, Mr. Carr said the ZBA ruled that the Industrial use of the property was grandfathered. Mr. Carr bought Mr. Bettencourt’s business in 2017 and continued to service vehicles, including his own large equipment, until Mr. White issued the cease and desist order driven by five zoning violations.
Mr. Carr said he tried to explain the situation to Mr. White, who allegedly told Mr. Carr: “There’s a new sheriff in town and things are going to be run differently around here.”
He said Mr. White was “constantly harassing” and “berating” him “and [he] told me I was no longer able to run my business….”
He said the intent of the Master Plan is to run the Industrial businesses out of town in favor of Mixed Use businesses.
“There is no other explanation for it,” he said. The matter, he said, has already been settled by the ZBA, and he resented having to appeal it.
Mr. Cox said he felt that the ZBA is wasting its time, saying, “This is a done case.”
“I can tell you with 100 percent honesty,” said Mr. Espindola, “that anything I brought up tonight when I talk about training [had] nothing to do with … A-1 Crane whatsoever.”
“I think this is unjust to you,” said Selectboard member Keith Silvia.
“I do too,” said Mr. Freitas.
Mr. Crotty explained that the cease and desist must be appealed before the ZBA. The substantive issue is whether the activity at the auto repair shop is within the same scope as it was when Mr. Bettencourt operated it and whether that use should be grandfathered. He added that the 2013 decision was “not well-written [and] seems to say Industrial use is still allowed,” but that the ZBA does not have the authority to zone property, only grandfather use.
Apparently, Mr. White perceived the use as different than it was when Mr. Bettencourt owned it, based on abutter complaints.
“It’s a factual issue,” said Mr. Crotty.
However, neither Mr. White nor the complaining abutter were around when Mr. Bettencourt ran his business, said Mr. Freitas, adding that he did not like saying anyone was “targeting” Mr. Carr, “Because it’s an awful word.”
Also during the meeting, Mr. Freitas became annoyed at Mr. Espindola when his agenda item, discussion of public participation during meetings, came up. Mr. Freitas wanted to table the matter, preferring to speed the meeting up (which wound up being nearly four hours long), as Mr. Espindola passed out one of his written handouts to accompany the discussion.
Mr. Espindola wanted chairpersons of town boards to read the Attorney General’s guidance on allowing the public to speak during meetings to encourage public participation when time permits.
Mr. Freitas motioned to table the matter because Mr. Espindola had only just introduced the written material, adding that chairs also reserve the right to deny public participation outside of a public hearing. He defended his decision during the last meeting to restrict public comment when Mr. Espindola wanted to discuss allowing a Department of Revenue financial management study.
Mr. Freitas continued to resist Mr. Espindola’s push to discuss public participation, and the two wrangled for about 15 minutes until Mr. Espindola gave in and said, “I’ll table it. I’m asking for a withdrawal.”
“Bob, don’t table it because I won’t allow it to be tabled,” said Mr. Freitas despite his own motion to table it. He defended himself saying he always allows people to speak and said, “Tell me when I didn’t allow someone to speak.”
The discussion continued; however, Mr. Espindola said he preferred to move forward than backwards.
“You’re asking me to table this and now you’re telling me not to table this,” said Mr. Espindola.
“I made a motion, you made a motion,” said Mr. Freitas. “So it’s up to Mr. Silvia. I’m so sick of it, honest to goodness.”
Mr. Silvia needed clarification on the two motions, first.
“You see, I take parts from both of it,” Mr. Silvia said unable to choose.
“I’ll let you off the hook,” said Mr. Freitas tabling the matter, followed by a few minutes of him complaining about Mr. Espindola’s manner of conducting business.
Also during the meeting, Mr. Rees announced that the Town will receive four COVID-19 related grants totaling $2.1 million. The School Department will use $1.7 million of it to fund its remote learning and hybrid learning programs for the year, while the rest of the Town will be allocated $436,000 to cover COVID-related costs. The Town has also received a grant for $50,00 to perform a Union Wharf feasibility study.
Mr. Rees will be issuing the Request for Proposals to hire a consultant to assist the town in its search for a new town administrator. Mr. Rees retires in January 2021.
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