Infection from Gilmanton land use dispute now widespread

GILMANTON — What started as a reasonably routine Planning Board matter regarding a small construction business on Route 140 appears to have spiraled out of control and infected many departments in town — including the Police Department and the Selectboard. It also appears that former Planning Board Chair Nancy Girard was not reappointed to her position as a result.
On January 23, Ryan Benson, the operator of the BMMC company, reported to police that some equipment from his rented contractor's yard had been stolen and he wanted to file a report.
Sgt. Matt Currier was on routine patrol and drove to the lot to meet with Benson, who told him he had seen snow tracks in his yard in the past week and now about $22,000 of his things — including a custom-made pontoon barge, pallet forks for a skid steer, a pump, and some fuel and fuel tanks had been taken.
Sgt. Currier's report indicates he was told the boat was worth $20,000 although there is some leeway in the value depending on whose valuing it.
Sgt. Currier's took a report and began an investigation that led him to the property owner, Dianna Vayda, who told them the Planning Board had revoked Benson's right to operate for repeated planning violations and she wanted his stuff removed from the yard.
The Vaydas sent Benson a letter in March of 2012 ordering him to vacate. In May of 2012 the Planning Board revoked his permit for numerous violations and requiring him to remove his property as of October 2012 or it would revert to the Vaydas.
Vaydas said she called a few people and found one man, Matthew Spaulding, who would take the stuff away. Currier and Chief Joe Collins located the things but Spauding said he didn't want to give the items back — he told Sgt. Currier he spent money cleaning the area — until he spoke to a lawyer.
After a week or so and some further examination, Sgt. Currier determined it was a civil matter and closed the case, which as a consequence made the paperwork open for public review.
It's the "further examination" part that roiled the waters in Gilmanton.
As part of the investigation, Sgt. Currier contacted the Planning Administrator Desiree Tumas and former Planning Board Chair Nancy Girard.
In his report he wrote Tumas said she sent a letter to Benson telling him the property had reverted to a residential use as of Sept. 26, 2012 and told him to remove the construction-related items by October 15, 2012 or ownership of any remaining items "will convert to the property owners of record, Dianna & Robert Vayda." Tumas said the letter was reviewed by town counsel.
The letter was given to Spaulding by the Vaydas, who told the sergeant that until he got a letter from the town, he wasn't giving the stuff back.
Sgt. Currier next called Girard who told him she was familiar with the Benson matter. His report said that he asked Girard what RSA or state law was used to determine who owned the items on the property. His report said he explained he didn't know all the laws and planning ordinances and that was the reason he called her.
His report said Girard told him the letter "was concerning" but followed up on January 24 with a statement to him that the Planning Board had the right to give Benson a time frame to clean up the property and remove the items he has stored on it.
Like any other small town in America, rumors and innuendo fly in Gilmanton and by April, Police Chief Joe Collins had sought out the opinions of the police prosecutor, Belmont Officer Dave Estes, who told them in his opinion it was a civil matter, and of Belknap County Atty. Melissa Guldbrandsen who also told them it was a civil matter because the state would be unable to prove the Vaydas gave the items to Spaulding based on the letter sent to the Vaydas by the Planning Board and there was no intent of the part of the Vaydas to commit a crime.
In a memo sent to Collins on April 1 that was part of the police file, Guldbrandsen also said the disposition of personal property needs to be addressed by the civil parties involved through appropriate landlord-tenant action.
"It is unclear whether Spaulding still has possession of the property," she wrote. "If he does, feel free to contact me for further analysis of this issue since he did not have legal authority to remove it in the first place."
By April the time had come for the newly elected Board of Selectmen — consisting of Chair Ralph Lavin, Brett Currier, and Don Guerino — to make their appointments to various town boards and committees.
Minutes of the April 8 meeting indicate the selectmen went into a non-public session citing RSA 91A:3, II (c). No announcements were made and the minutes were sealed.
Girard was not reappointed to the Planning Board. To date, the names of the people who applied has not been made public.
At the April 15 meeting, four residents, including former selectman Rachel Hatch and Planning Board Vice Chair John Funk, stated they were very upset that the selectmen had changed its policy regarding town board appointments by not discussing them and making them in public.
Chair Ralph Lavin told them the board cannot specifically discuss people not on the Board of Selectmen and told anyone with a concern should schedule his or her own non-public meeting.
By April 29, Chief Collins had jumped into the public fray by sending a letter to the selectmen saying the police never questioned the Planning Board authority to revoke Benson's permit. However, he said he was angry that Girard had said Sgt. Currier's police report was false and he had "thrown his weight around" during the investigation.
Collins said he spoke with the Town Attorney Walter Mitchell who told him he had not reviewed the letter sent from Tumas to the Vaydas and he had called the Planning Board to say the wording was incorrect.
He also said Planning Board Vice Chair John Funk sent an e-mail on April 16 to 49 people saying "... Matt Currier, (Selectman) Brett Currier's son, inappropriately intruded himself in a official capacity in a dispute involving the planning board."
Collins said Currier responded to a "felony-level complaint" and had a duty to investigate with a goal of trying to return the property to the victim.
He said Funk also sent an e-mail on April 19 to 40 people charging that Sgt. Currier failed to investigate properly and was told to "stand down" on the matter once the facts were known.
Collins went on to say that he is the only person with the authority to tell Sgt. Currier (or any other police officer under his command) to "stand down," that at all times Sgt. Currier was acting under his authority and in his role as police officer. He said the battery of e-mails was a personal attack on Sgt. Currier because his father is a selectman.
On May 6, Funk sent a letter to Collins and apologizing to him and Sgt. Currier if they felt he had attacked him personally. He also asked for Sgt. Currier to apologize to Girard and Tumas if he caused any misunderstanding.
He agreed that the police and the Planning Board should not be feuding about this.
Funk also said that Benson brought much of it upon himself by not vacating the property. He also cited RSA 540-A:3,VII that states where non-residential property in concerned, while a landlord must exercise reasonable care for a tenant's property, once a tenant has vacated — either voluntarily or by eviction — his or her property may be disposed of by the landlord after seven days without notice.
He said the Vaydas waited three months after evicting Benson.
According to pleadings in the U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court, Benson filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in July of 2012.
On January 8, 2013 a federal judge dismissed the case because Benson failed to make timely payments according to a proffered bankruptcy plan, that he failed to provide monthly reports regarding his self-employment, and that he failed to show proof of insurance on his property.
There was no mention of a $20,000 pontoon boat in his schedule of assets in the bankruptcy filing.