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Keene panel recommends eminent domain for roundabout project
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The Keene City Council is poised to consider taking portions of two Winchester Street properties for a proposed roundabout project, after one of its committees endorsed the measure in a procedural step Tuesday.

At its meeting that night, the Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the full council authorize the proposed takings. FOP Committee Chairman Thomas Powers said it is scheduled for consideration at the body’s Jan. 7 meeting.

The city had proposed acquiring property rights from owners of 12 parcels that would be impacted by its $4.27 million project to improve traffic flow on Winchester Street, which would include building a pair of roundabouts and replacing the Island Street bridge. The N.H. Department of Transportation would fund 80 percent of the project, with the city covering the remaining costs.

After securing approval to acquire parts of nine parcels, city officials announced last month they were not able to negotiate settlements for the remaining three and intended to claim them by eminent domain instead. (Eminent domain, also known as condemnation, allows a government to take private property by force if it will be put to public use and as long as the landowner is compensated fairly.)

One of the remaining parcels is at the 333 Winchester St. location of Chipotle Mexican Grill. The other two are at 345 Winchester St., the site of a Sunoco gas station and Sandri Convenience Store.

Keene officials’ plan to claim them by eminent domain was the subject of a contentious public hearing before the City Council on Dec. 17 in which the parcels’ respective owners — Keene Retail and Sandri Companies — rejected the claims. At the hearing, Michael Hanley, an attorney for Sandri Companies, said the company is ready to litigate the decision in court, if necessary.

“This is a very profitable business venture for the [Sandri] family; it consists of a gasoline station as well as a convenience store,” he said. “The impact of the proposal will be to turn the convenience store into an inconvenience store.”

Sandri Companies had previously requested to build a new driveway to the 345 Winchester St. property, since it would be forced to close one of two existing driveways if the city executes its proposed land takings. The company withdrew that request during a planning board meeting Monday, however.

Sandri President Michael Behn said in an interview Tuesday morning that the company could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars if the roundabouts are built, adding that it is prepared to litigate the issue to the N.H. Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, however, the five-person FOP Committee concluded the city’s claims are consistent with a trio of state-mandated criteria for eminent-domain decisions. Those criteria require that it is necessary to the proposed roundabout project, that it would fulfill a public use and that it would provide a net benefit to the public.

City Engineer Donald Lussier and City Attorney Thomas Mullins presented to the committee a draft resolution that would authorize the land takings by the full City Council. The resolution included slight modifications from a previous version that Mullins said clarified the takings’ necessity, updated the date of a recent public hearing and broadened the resolution’s compliance with RSA 498-A, which governs the eminent-domain process in New Hampshire.

Committee members asked municipal staff about the roundabout project’s history, emphasizing — rather explicitly, at times — the importance of ensuring the city complied with procedural requirements, given the threat of a legal challenge by the Sandri family.

Responding to a question from Ward 1 Councilor Raleigh Ormerod, Lussier said the initial steering committee for the project discussed in 2016 a possible need to acquire properties but that “the specifics … weren’t nailed down until late in 2019.”

Ormerod voiced concern that the three-year gap in that timeline would weaken the city’s case that the takings are necessary. Public Works Director Kürt Blomquist attempted to assuage those fears by noting that Keene officials have examined the Winchester Street-Key Road intersection for decades.

“The need to upgrade and improve this intersection literally has been on the books for 22 years,” he said.

Municipal staff also told committee members how the city concluded $15,400 as fair compensation for parts of the Sandri parcels, following a question from At-Large Councilor Stephen Hooper. Lussier said that figure resulted from a state-mandated process requiring an independent appraiser to consider the property value that would be lost as a result of the proposed taking. (It would pay $5,125 to claim a section of the Keene Retail property, based on the same appraisal process, he said Wednesday morning.)

“It’s a more comprehensive and thorough way of appraising the property because it takes into account how the acquisition affects the remainder of the property,” Lussier told committee members.

Powers, Hooper, Ward 3 Councilor Terry Clark and At-Large Councilor Michael Remy recommended the property claims for approval by the full City Council. Ormerod was barred from voting because he did not attend a previous visit to the proposed roundabout site.

Also on Tuesday, the Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee voted unanimously to recommend the city accept a federal grant that Keene police will use to purchase bulletproof vests.

Keene police Capt. Todd Lawrence told committee members the department estimates it will spend $8,490 on vests for new hires and to replace vests that have eclipsed their five-year warranty. Police budgeted $3,950 for new vests, and the $4,540 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will help cover the remaining costs, he said.

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Cleveland Place tenants concerned about loss of snowstorm parking option

Residents at Cleveland Place were familiar with the signs posted in the elevators before every snowstorm telling them to park in a nearby municipal parking deck overnight so the building’s parking lot could be plowed.

This year, tenants at the federally subsidized apartments in downtown Keene received a different notice: Starting Dec. 14, they would need to pay for that privilege because the city was implementing parking-permit requirements in Wells Street Garage spots that had previously been metered.

Emile J. Legere Management, the Keene company that owns Cleveland Place, informed residents of the change in a Dec. 8 letter, explaining that any vehicles left in the apartment lot during a snowstorm would still be towed. The city is allowing them to park at metered spaces on the Wells Street Garage rooftop instead — though management warned it would be “at your own risk,” since vehicles may need to be moved to allow for plowing the roof.

“If there is a storm coming you might want to make arrangements with a friend or family to have your car at their house,” the letter said.

Some of Cleveland Place’s approximately 85 residents — all of whom are elderly, disabled or both and receive varying amounts of rent assistance from the federal Housing Choice Voucher program — feel burdened by the new rules.

Since moving to the building in June 2018, Jeannine Agard, 66, said she has always moved her car to the Wells Street Garage’s ground level during snowstorms. Parking on the garage roof would be dangerous in inclement weather, she said, due to her medical conditions, which include an artificial right knee and asthma. (The garage does not have an elevator.)

“I can’t do that ramp, and I can’t do the stairs,” she said. “It’s too steep.”

And the permits are too expensive for many Cleveland Place residents’ limited budgets, according to Legere property manager Leslie Hanson.

Agard, who also has diabetes and a cardiovascular condition from a previous bout with congestive heart failure, collects $780 each month from Social Security Disability Insurance. Rather than making her $232 rent payment for December to Legere Management, she spent the money on a parking permit that lasts through March.

“[They’ll] wait until next month on the rent, and that’s just how it’s going to be,” Agard said Dec. 17.

Through an informal agreement with the city, Cleveland Place residents have been allowed for nearly two decades to park overnight in the Wells Street Garage while the apartments’ 44-space lot is plowed, according to Hanson. She said residents could choose to pay for more time when the meters start running at 8 a.m. or move back to the Cleveland Place lot, which is behind the building.

City Manager Elizabeth Dragon told The Sentinel in an email Dec. 16 that she was not aware of any such agreement with Cleveland Place residents, adding that it is possible Keene officials did not enforce the parking regulations during overnight snowstorms.

But Hanson criticized the new permit requirements, arguing that the previous arrangement benefited tenants at no cost to the city.

“If they’re feeding the meters after 8 a.m., what does it matter to the city?” she said Monday. “The city wasn’t losing anything, but it was convenient for the tenants.”

In her email, Dragon attributed the recent change to high demand for parking from downtown residents who were on a waiting list to purchase permits. She explained that the Wells Street Garage had been “underutilized” for several years when some spaces were metered, some required permits and others were leased to businesses like the Marriott Courtyard Hotel on Railroad Street.

Keene officials decided “to see if the demand was as high as they anticipated” by offering additional spaces in the Wells Street Garage to people on the permit waiting list at the city’s current rate of $200 per quarter, according to Dragon. That meant converting the 20 metered spots on its ground level into permit parking, Parking Operations Manager Elizabeth Wood said Tuesday.

Permits became available to purchase several weeks ago and had been sold for all the spots as of Dec. 16, according to Dragon.

Hanson said Legere Management considered subsidizing permits for Cleveland Place residents before deciding it would be too expensive.

Still, the new permit-holders include several tenants, who Agard said have nowhere else to move their cars while the building’s lot is being plowed. She purchased one on Dec. 14 at a prorated cost of $38 for the remainder of the month, plus $200 for the first three months of 2021.

Linda Horne, 66, who has lived at Cleveland Place for nearly three years, purchased her permit the next day after taking out a loan to defray its cost.

Horne expects to receive $1,142 each month from Social Security Disability Insurance next year, which will help cover her $339 monthly rent, two loans she took out to purchase and repair her car and other expenses. She will repay the latest loan in $21.75 monthly installments next year.

“By the time you pay your rent, the three loans I have, car insurance and cable, it adds up pretty quick,” she said.

Despite the financial pressures, Horne bought a parking permit to ensure her car would not be towed, since her apartment does not have a view of the lot behind Cleveland Place. She chose not to park on the garage roof out of similar concerns and because she also worried about navigating the ramp on foot.

Horne and Agard said their cars will remain in the Wells Street Garage as long as their permits remain valid. They know other Cleveland Place residents who were unable to purchase spaces, either due to financial reasons or because the city had sold out of permits.

The new parking arrangement was tested last week, when Keene got more than a foot of snow — much of it in the wee hours of Dec. 17.

Agard estimated that 10 residents moved their vehicles from the Cleveland Place parking lot so it could it plowed after the storm, adding that “there [was] nowhere to put them.”

Legere Management suggested that tenants without a permit clear their vehicles and drive around the city while that happened, Hanson said Monday, acknowledging the danger in asking elderly people to be on the snowy roads. She said nobody was towed but that management had to remind several residents to move their cars.

Agard argued that Legere Management is at least partially to blame for the situation, saying she has never been told to move her car during snowstorms at several previous rental units in the Monadnock Region.

“We’ve always had parking,” she said. “I’ve never had this problem until I moved to Keene.”

The city will continue evaluating parking options at the Wells Street Garage in the coming months in an effort “to maximize utilization of this space and meet the existing parking needs in the community,” Dragon said in her Dec. 16 email. The price of a permit for the garage is expected to increase in the second quarter of 2021, she said.

Dragon added that Cleveland Place residents should call the city’s Parking Services department with any questions or concerns.

“We certainly will help as much as we can while they work out long-term plans for snow removal in their parking lots,” she said.

Trump hints he might not sign pandemic relief bill

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump asked Congress Tuesday night to amend the nearly $900 billion stimulus bill passed just one day before, describing the legislation as “a disgrace” and suggesting he would not immediately sign off on aid for millions of Americans.

In a video posted to Twitter, Trump called on Congress to increase the “ridiculously low” $600 stimulus checks to $2,000 and outlined a list of provisions in the overall package of legislation that he described as “wasteful spending and much more.” He did not mention that the $600 stimulus check idea came from his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin.

“I am also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation, and to send me a suitable bill, or else the next administration will have to deliver a COVID relief package, and maybe that administration will be me,” Trump said.

The video landed like a sonic boom in Washington. His own aides were stunned. Congressional aides were stunned. Stock market futures quickly slumped on the prospect that the economic aid could be in doubt.

And the implications for what happens next could be severe. If he refuses to sign the bill, the government will shut down on Dec. 29. The $900 billion in emergency economic aid will be frozen, and the race for the two Senate seats in Georgia could also be upended.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., however, quickly responded to the Twitter post by saying congressional Democrats would move as soon as Thursday, when the House is scheduled to meet for a brief pro forma session, to advance the $2,000 stimulus checks.

“Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks,” she posted on Twitter on Tuesday night after Trump’s message. “At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also tweeted that he supported the idea of larger stimulus checks, but he blamed Republicans for preventing them from being included in the bill.

“We spent months trying to secure $2000 checks but Republicans blocked it,” Schumer wrote. “Trump needs to sign the bill to help people and keep the government open and we’re glad to pass more aid Americans need. Maybe Trump can finally make himself useful and get Republicans not to block it again.”

Logistically, though, it could prove difficult for Democrats and Trump to amend the bill and approve $2,000 checks in the next few days, or even weeks.

If any Republican in the House opposed Pelosi’s effort on Thursday, it would not pass. Such a change would also require Senate Republicans to pass the measure unanimously, something that is unlikely to happen.

Several White House aides spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the chaotic and secretive process that unfolded Monday and Tuesday, when many of them were kept in the dark about Trump’s motives and the video. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, kept the video very closely held on Tuesday, several of them said, with aides involved in the negotiations learning of it only an hour before it was posted. Even Trump’s legislative affairs office, which is responsible for dealing with Congress every day, was caught unawares, they said.

The $600 direct payments added roughly $167 billion to the $900 billion package, according to Ernie Tedeschi, an economist and former Treasury Department official in the Obama administration. Tedeschi estimated that increasing the payments to $2,000 per adult would grow the cost of the bill by $370 billion.

The 5,593-page package was introduced Monday afternoon and passed the House and Senate late with broad bipartisan support, clearing the Senate by a 92-to-6 margin. Republicans had insisted on keeping the economic relief portion at less than $1 trillion, and larger checks would have pushed the final tally higher.

Trump’s aides had made positive comments about the bill lawmakers passed, but Trump had largely stayed out of negotiations. Last week, he had complained to some aides that the $600 stimulus checks were too low and that he wanted them raised to $1,200 or $2,000, but aides had convinced him not to intervene, saying it could scuttle the whole package.

Some aides were stunned that Trump weighed in the way he did after his economic team had publicly praised the bill.

But administration officials had negotiated in the final days without explicitly securing Trump’s approval, aides said. He had largely been distracted with overturning the results of the presidential election.

Trump had long wanted to do more than $600 in checks and kept asking aides why they couldn’t agree to a bigger number, an official said.

He released the video Tuesday after a number of his aides, including Meadows, were already out of town.

“So dumb,” one administration official said. “So, so dumb.”

As the coronavirus pandemic began to move rapidly through the United States in March, Congress passed a $2.2 trillion relief bill to limit the economic impact. That law included the first round of one-time stimulus payments, pegged at $1,200.

Many of that law’s other measures expired over the course of the year, and the recent spike in cases — and the end of the election campaign — sparked a bipartisan coalition to seek a new bill. The measure that passed Monday night promised $900 billion in new assistance, including the $600 stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment aid for 11 weeks, small-business assistance and a range of other measures.

Trump’s top economic advisers had not signaled that he was unhappy with the bill. In fact, they had suggested they approved of the way the package came together.

“I am pleased that Congress has passed on an overwhelming bipartisan basis additional critical economic relief for American workers, families and businesses,” Mnuchin tweeted seven hours before Trump’s video was posted.

Mnuchin gushed about the stimulus bill Monday, and he serves as Trump’s key negotiator with Congress on spending and economic matters.

“Mnuchin (your Treasury Sec) represented YOU during extended negotiations on this bill package. We are Republic not a monarchy,” retiring Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan wrote on Twitter Tuesday night in a message aimed at Trump. Mitchell had served as a Republican lawmaker before announcing that he was disassociating from the party in part because of Trump’s antics since the election.

Aides told reporters all day that Trump would be signing the bill, but they later learned that he taped the video at least five hours before it was released, officials said.

Not all aides were supportive of the measure, though some kept their criticisms closely held.

Aides who dislike the bill used the fact that some of its unrelated spending provisions included foreign aid as a way to turn Trump against the measure, knowing that American money going to other countries raises the president’s ire. There was also a backlash to the bill among conservatives on Twitter, something Trump tends to monitor carefully.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., tweeted Tuesday night that Trump was “conflating” the government spending portion of the bill with the economic relief portion.

“HIS TEAM negotiatiated [sic] this, and blessed combining the two! But since twitter erupted, he erupted,” Kinzinger wrote.

Virtually all of the complaints Trump made in the four-minute video— including foreign aid agreements, aid to the Kennedy Center, fish management language and more — are not part of the $900 billion COVID relief agreement but rather included in other, separately negotiated parts of the legislation, including a $1.4 trillion omnibus appropriations bill and a measure authorizing $9.9 billion in water projects. These bills and many others were packaged together.

Two congressional aides who had been involved in the negotiations said they were unaware of any problems the White House had with the bill. On Sunday, Ben Williamson, a spokesman for Meadows, said publicly ahead of the bill’s release that Trump supported the legislation and would sign it.

Trump’s refusal to embrace the bill publicly as it moved through Congress made some aides nervous, raising the prospect that he would once again cannonball into the pool at the end with a public declaration.

“This is what happens with a president who places more trust in conservative fever swamp Twitter than his own Treasury Secretary. His administration helped negotiate this bill, and he just pulled down the pants of every Republican who voted for it,” said Brendan Buck, a former top aide to onetime House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Ryan and Buck often struggled with the president changing his mind.

Trump has also not shared the fiscal discipline that some of his aides, such as Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought, have and has told advisers that doing only $600 would not be “popular,” in the words of one senior administration official.

The House and Senate passed the bill with such large margins that they could probably override a veto if Trump tried to block the measure. But that process could take weeks. Two aides said Trump might still sign the bill, noting he did not explicitly say he would veto it.Whether he goes to Mar-a-Lago on Wednesday remains unclear, several advisers said, even though it is on his schedule.

Some of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill even tried to defend the economic relief bill Tuesday night, raising questions about who had convinced the president to turn against it.

“The #COVID19 package, while imperfect, will save jobs and lives,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted. “The sooner the bill becomes law — the better.”

Some White House officials were scrambling late Tuesday to discern who got in Trump’s ear and helped make the video, along with giving him erroneous information about the bill.

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Brattleboro voters to consider marijuana sales on March ballot

BRATTLEBORO — Town residents will decide this spring whether to allow the retail sale of marijuana in Brattleboro.

The Brattleboro Selectboard unanimously approved adding the question to the March 2 ballot during a special meeting Tuesday night.

“It’s a commonsense thing to see what Brattleboro thinks, and that will help us decide whether we need to invest the resources and implementing in Brattleboro or not,” Board Clerk Ian Goodnow said. “And that’s without giving an opinion either way. I just think giving people the voice here makes a lot of sense.”

In October, Vermont became the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana sales, which will be regulated by a three-member state Cannabis Control Board, according to a news release from Gov. Phil Scott. The bill became law without the governor’s signature.

Retail stores will be able to receive licenses from the board and open in October 2022, but whether individual communities will allow the sale is subject to town approval, the release says.

Middlebury was the first and only community so far to authorize a vote on marijuana sales, with its selectboard approving the motion Dec. 8.

In 2018, Vermont also legalized the possession (up to 1 ounce) and cultivation of marijuana for those 21 and older. Medical marijuana has been allowed in the Green Mountain State since 2004.

Tuesday’s meeting brought limited discussion from community members, with nearly 40 people on the Zoom call.

Among them was Cassandra Holloway, director of the social-service agency Building a Positive Community in Brattleboro, who worried the decision might be rushed.

“My concern is we are asking our town residents to vote without any real information on what they are voting on,” Holloway said, “because on a state level, they haven’t figured out what to do on a local level.”

Scott initially planned to have the Cannabis Control Board members appointed in January, the law states, though the governor said this timeline may be “too aggressive.” The board is aimed at starting the rule-making process for cannabis shops in July.

The control board will have authority over licensing, regulation and enforcement of Vermont’s cannabis industry.

Members of the Brattleboro Selectboard agreed with Holloway’s concern, and said they plan to provide the community with information on what retail sale would mean for the town prior to the spring vote.

Holloway, who works with youths on substance-use prevention, said she’s also worried that having a retail cannabis store in Brattleboro could trigger those in recovery or lead to increased use among teens.

Several studies show youth marijuana use has actually decreased in states where recreational cannabis is legal.

A 2019 study published by the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry used data from national and state Youth Risk Behavior Surveys from 1993 to 2017.

The study found an 8 percent decrease in the likelihood of teens using marijuana, as well as a 9 percent reduction in the odds of frequent cannabis use — at least 10 times in the past 30 days — in states that allow recreational marijuana use.

From a business perspective, putting the question on the ballot this year is important, according to Brattleboro resident Scott Sparks.

Sparks owns Vermont Hempicurean on Flat Street, which sells Vermont-grown hemp, CBD products and marijuana-growing supplies. If Brattleboro residents pass the ballot measure, he said he’ll move his store to a larger location and add recreational marijuana.

“As a business owner, I’d like to know sooner rather than later, because it is going take an awful lot of planning,” he said. “The more information I have up front is certainly going to make it a lot easier for me going forward.”

Ultimately, town residents will decide — albeit how many of them will turn out to do so remains to be seen.

“We know, historically, that the number of people who vote on town meeting day is not representative of the town,” said selectboard member Daniel Quipp. “I hope people will learn this is on the ballot and get informed and tell us their thoughts on it.”