A long-running legal dispute over permitting of the Gilmanton Winery will enter a court-ordered alternative dispute resolution process, according to an April 7 order from the Belknap County Superior Court. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)
By DAVID CARKHUFF, LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILMANTON — Based on a new court order, a settlement may precede any type of civil trial in the high-profile legal dispute of Marshall and Carol Bishop, owners of the Gilmanton Winery, and the town Planning Board.
The case, over site plan requirements for the historic winery and its associated restaurant, took on political overtones because of Marshall Bishop's role as a Gilmanton selectman. The legal fight even became a political issue in the recent town election, when Bishop's opponents complained about the thousands of dollars spent by the town on the litigation. Bishop won re-election despite the controversy.
Now, the Belknap County Superior Court has ordered alternative dispute resolution, a form of mediation that seeks to save time and money, forge agreements that are more mutually satisfactory and stave off the time and costs of trials, according to court rules.
On April 7, Judge James O'Neill ordered alternative dispute resolution, as part of a "case structuring" order that set out the potential calendar for the case.
By Aug. 31, the Bishops and a representative of the town must complete the form of mediation, according to the order.
Barring a quick mediation, Judge O'Neill scheduled a hearing for 9 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 4, to receive an update on the parties' progress in the case of Marshall Bishop et al v Town of Gilmanton Planning Board. Without a resolution, the bench trial would take place Jan. 4 and 5, 2018.
If a settlement is reached, the public can't expect any of the details to become public. Civil rules of the superior courts in New Hampshire stipulate, "ADR proceedings and information relating to those proceedings shall be confidential unless otherwise agreed in writing by all parties and all counsel."
The legal dispute reaches back half a dozen years. According to a March 17 request for dismissal by the town, Marshall Bishop approached the Planning Board in January 2011 to propose developing a winery, restaurant and bed and breakfast at the historic home of "Peyton Place" author Grace Metalious.
The home's garage was to be converted into a winery and the downstairs area of the home into a dining and function area, according to the plans then unveiled. A third phase called for conversion of the upstairs and downstairs into a bed and breakfast, according to the court filing.
In spring 2011, the Bishops submitted a site plan application to the Planning Board, seeking approval for the winery and function hall. The Planning Board unanimously granted the final site plan approval on June 9, 2011, according to the filing.
"In January 2016, Mr. Bishop defeated his opponent, Brett Currier, and was elected to serve on the Town of Gilmanton Board of Selectmen," the filing notes.
The Bishops alleged a vendetta, a charge the town denied in its filing. In an Oct. 17, 2016, letter to the Bishops, attorney Paul Fitzgerald of Wescott Law of Laconia wrote that "currently pending issues" prompted the Planning Board to require a new site plan for the winery, according to the Bishops.
"Through legal counsel, the Bishops responded to Attorney Fitzgerald's letter on October 21, 2016," the filing continued. "The letter indicated the Bishops believed that the winery complied with all applicable laws, ordinances, and regulations, but would nonetheless like to address amicably any well-founded concerns of the Planning Board."
After more back-and-forth by the parties, the Bishops argued that the Planning Board waged a "public persecution" that damaged their reputations, especially to Marshall Bishop "because it raises the specter of impropriety given that he is an elected town official," the filing reports. The Bishops also received telephone calls from potential customers asking if the winery was still open, evidence that the legal wrangling harmed their business, the couple wrote in their lawsuit. The town denied these allegations in the March 17 filing by the town's legal counsel, Russell Hilliard of Upton and Hatfield of Portsmouth.
The Planning Board has asserted that the Gilmanton Winery has been operating "a full service restaurant with onsite food preparation without appropriate approvals from the Planning Board," according to a "respondent's answer and request for declaratory relief" at the Belknap County Superior Court.
The Bishops' suit argued that the Planning Board began questioning the lawfulness of the winery in 2016 "with the same information that it had in 2011 when it granted the Bishops final site plan approval, and the Bishops have not made any substantial changes to the winery since approval."
The Bishops are asking the court for attorneys' fees and costs.