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New Symonds bus route to start, despite neighbors' lingering opposition

After receiving the green light from the city, Symonds School in Keene is implementing a controversial new bus route Thursday.

The Keene Planning Board unanimously approved a driveway permit for the bus circle — the last procedural hurdle for the project — at its regular meeting Aug. 24.

The new bus route will be in full use this academic year, which starts Thursday for most of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, according to Symonds Principal Richard Cate.

But some neighbors, having fought the plan for a year, say they’re still concerned about issues including traffic and safety.

The SAU, which includes Keene, is using a blend of in-person and virtual learning this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which Cate said may help make the implementation of the new route smoother.

“Because only half the kids will be coming in [at one time], we anticipate the traffic being a lot easier,” he said Wednesday.

Between 12 and 15 students can ride in a bus at once, compared to last year’s 72, Cate noted. He’s not sure yet how many students will use the buses.

The bus route has been a hot topic since September 2019, when Cate issued a notice to people who live near the school that a new fenced-in bus circle would be built behind it on the playground. A bus circle is a designated area where buses can drop off and pick up students and turn around easily.

The goal of the new bus circle — built at a cost of $55,700 and paid for through savings in another project — is to prevent traffic jams and improve safety for students, according to Cate.

Previously, buses picked up and dropped off Symonds students in front of the school building, which is also where the 250-car parking lot and the entrance to Wheelock Park are located.

Cate said this set-up was troublesome because more students are getting dropped off and picked up by parents than in previous years. That means more traffic and an increased risk of children being injured.

The goal of the new bus route is to decrease morning and afternoon congestion in front of the school.

But, to get to the new circle, the school’s five buses would need to be routed through Wheelock Street, Newman Street and Pine Avenue in the mornings and afternoons.

The school held several information sessions on the bus route last year. Neighborhood residents have argued that the route change would bring a new set of issues to the community.

Among their concerns are that students who walk to school would be at risk of getting hit and that the new bus traffic would drive down property values.

At the school’s last meeting about the route in December, residents called on the city for help in making a decision on the circle. City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said the only thing the project needed city approval for was a driveway permit.

The permit — applied for by Keene School District Facilities Director Ken Dooley — allows the school to create an additional driveway for buses by opening up an existing gate at the end of Wheelock Street.

The permit request was amended by the planning board to forbid buses from queuing on Wheelock Street but was otherwise approved.

Several neighbors of Symonds School are still unhappy with the bus route, saying their safety concerns haven’t been addressed.

Lauren Pierce, 39, has one child who just graduated from Symonds and another who will attend in the coming years.

She said she is “really, really shocked” that this is the best option the school came up with to address bus traffic issues.

Pierce, a resident of Pine Avenue, argued that these streets — which have several side streets attached to them — are already fairly busy during the day and adding buses would make it worse.

“It just surprises me that adding to that congestion makes sense,” Pierce said.

Justin Wright, 38, said he’s worried that additional gridlock will occur in the winter months.

He explained that there will be less room on the road for buses after plowing is done. Additionally, Wright said there may be more heavy equipment on these roads to remove snow properly in front of the new bus gate.

Dave Calhoun, 70, echoed Wright’s concerns about winter. He said children who walk to and from school — between five and 35 students each day, according to data the school provided last year — will be at higher risk of getting hit once the snow falls because it will leave less room on the sidewalks.

Ultimately, Calhoun said, area residents feel their worries weren’t addressed.

“It’s been a concern,” he said, “and is still a concern by the local people right there.”

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Keene zoning board delays hearing on shelter's proposed new space

The Keene Zoning Board of Adjustment has delayed hearings on two petitions filed by Hundred Nights Inc., a nonprofit that assists people experiencing homelessness, after receiving a flurry of public comments, according to Corinne Marcou, the board’s clerk.

The zoning board voted unanimously on Tuesday to postpone until Sept. 22 its consideration of Hundred Nights’ land-use requests for a pair of properties where it hopes to accommodate people experiencing homelessness.

Hundred Nights needs action on the two requests — for a variance and a change of non-conforming use — to apply for federal funds that are temporarily available during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to its executive director, Mindy Cambiar.

Joshua Gorman, the board’s chairman, on Tuesday proposed rescheduling the hearings “due to the high volume of public response to [the] two applications and the recent arrival of much information.”

The zoning board approved Gorman’s motion by a 5–0 vote, which he said would allow its members to “adequately and properly review all of the public input.”

Marcou said the board recently received at least 50 letters about the land-use petitions, with some supportive and others opposed.

The zoning board will now review Hundred Nights’ requests three days before the first of two application deadlines for federal money.

“I think we’re a little disappointed that it got pushed off,” Cambiar said Wednesday. “I just hope they don’t postpone it again.”

If the Sept. 22 hearing is rescheduled, however, Cambiar said Hundred Nights may still be able to request funding by Sept. 25, conditioned on the zoning board’s approving its petitions at a later date.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are available through the federal CARES Act for homeless shelters to upgrade or purchase properties for social distancing, a protocol called “decompression.” Cambiar said last month that the money would help Hundred Nights offset the potential loss of as many as 24 beds, located in two local churches, where it previously accommodated guests during the colder months.

Last month, Hundred Nights petitioned the zoning board because, she said, the city’s current regulations limit its opportunities for relocation. (Those regulations are being revised and a new code may be issued in early 2021, according to city officials.)

Hundred Nights filed the first of two requests on Aug. 20, for a variance at 122–124 Water St., city records show.

Cambiar said Hundred Nights hopes to purchase the property, which previously housed Tom’s Auto Service, to use for its resource center and a new shelter. The organization requires a variance for both uses because the city’s business growth and reuse district does not permit them.

Hundred Nights also applied for a change of nonconforming use at 15 King Court on Aug. 25, according to city records. Cambiar said the organization would like to lease the property, which records show has more than 5,000 square feet of living area, to accommodate 24 guests at night.

However, the property is in a low-density district primarily intended for single-family residences, meaning the zoning board needs to permit its use as a homeless shelter.

Marcou said one of the letters sent to the board was from an attorney representing King Court residents who oppose Hundred Nights’ request for change of nonconforming use.

Cambiar acknowledged their opposition to the proposal but emphasized that Hundred Nights guests would only be on site at night.

“We are willing to work with neighbors and neighborhoods around there to do whatever we can to mitigate their fears,” she said.

Trump interview shows he downplayed coronavirus

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said in a taped interview that he deliberately downplayed the danger of the coronavirus in public early this year despite knowing it posed a deadly threat to Americans, a revelation that sent shock waves Wednesday through a presidential campaign entering the home stretch.

The damaging disclosure came in one of 18 recorded interviews that Trump gave to veteran journalist Bob Woodward between December and July for a book scheduled for publication Tuesday. It exploded into public view on a day when the confirmed U.S. death toll from COVID-19 exceeded 190,000, a once-unimaginable tally.

The audio recordings included the president’s admission in February that he knew the coronavirus was “more deadly” than the common flu, even though he was claiming otherwise in public.

Several weeks later, Trump also acknowledged he was downplaying the pandemic on purpose.

“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

In their final interview, on July 21, Trump vented to Woodward: “The virus has nothing to do with me. It’s not my fault.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, denounced Trump’s comments during a campaign stop in Michigan, while the White House, unable to dismiss the president’s own words as a news report based on unnamed sources, scrambled to respond.

“It was a life and death betrayal of the American people,” Biden said during an appearance with union members in Warren, Michigan. “He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.

“He knew how dangerous it was,” Biden continued. “While this deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job on purpose.”

Biden cited researchers who contended that tens of thousands of lives might have been saved if the White House had acted more swiftly to lock down offices, factories and schools back in March.

For all the furor, the audio tapes — which are certain to be featured in Democratic campaign ads — may not dramatically change the trajectory of the fall campaign. Trump won in 2016 weeks after a video revealed his off-screen comments on “Access Hollywood” bragging that his celebrity enabled him to assault women.

For most voters, Trump’s coarse, blunt and often incendiary rhetoric and behavior are already baked in to their assessments of a highly unconventional and controversial president.

But with just 54 days left in a contest that has tightened in some battleground states as Trump has fought to re-frame the race around issues of crime and safety, the revelation immediately shifted the focus back to Biden’s preferred battleground, the president’s response to the deadly pandemic.

The impact may be heightened at a moment when millions of families, already locked down or severely constrained since March, have been forced to begin a new school year in virtual form from their homes. Moreover, the economy continues to struggle: Although unemployment has declined, more than 13.6 million Americans are out of work.

According to CNN excerpts of Woodward’s book “Rage,” Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, warned him on Jan. 28 that the coronavirus posed the “biggest national security threat” of his presidency, but Trump later told Woodward he didn’t recall the warning.

At the White House, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany argued that Trump’s comments on the tape were consistent with his public statements from the time, saying he sought to keep the country calm and did not intentionally withhold dire warnings that might have prompted the public to take more adequate precautions.

“The president has never lied to the American public on COVID,” McEnany said. “The president was expressing calm and his actions reflect that.”

McEnany flatly denied that Trump did what he can be heard admitting to Woodward he was doing: “The president never downplayed the virus,” she said. “At a time when you’re facing insurmountable challenges, it’s important to express confidence, it’s important to express calm.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was one of few Republican lawmakers to discuss the audio tapes, arguing that Trump’s actions, more than his comments, showed the country he was taking the virus seriously.

“I don’t think he needs to go on TV and scream, ‘We’re all going to die,’ ” Graham said. “But his actions of shutting the economy down were the right actions. I think the tone at the time sort of spoke for itself. People knew it was serious.”

Democrats were less charitable.

“He didn’t know how to cope with a challenge to our country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told MSNBC. “Secondly, his disdain and denial for science, which has the answers. We could have contained this early on. But, bigger than all of that, bigger than all of that was his total disregard for the impact on individual families in our country.”

The Woodward book also includes stinging criticisms of Trump from current and former officials who worked closely with him.

According to excerpts in The Washington Post, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis called Trump “dangerous” and “unfit.” At one point, Mattis spoke with Dan Coats, then the director of national intelligence, about whether they take “collective action” and speak out publicly against Trump, who Coats said “doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key figure on the White House coronavirus task force whose warnings have frustrated the president, reportedly grumbled to Woodward about Trump’s attention span being “like a minus number.”

Woodward also includes an anecdote about Trump lambasting the nation’s top military officials in a meeting, saying: “My f---ing generals are a bunch of p---ies” who care more about military alliances than trade deals.

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With governor's race set, Sununu and Feltes look to November

As New Hampshire’s gubernatorial primary ended Wednesday, Democratic nominee Dan Feltes and incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu kicked off what is likely to be a heated campaign season leading up to the Nov. 3 general election.

On Wednesday, following a competitive primary, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky conceded to Feltes, the state Senate’s majority leader, who secured 52.5 percent of the vote to Volinsky’s 47.5 percent. Sununu easily won his own primary Tuesday.

“I am humbled and honored to be the Democratic nominee for Governor of New Hampshire,” Feltes said in a prepared statement Wednesday morning. “I know the pollsters and the pundits think this a long shot, but we’ve proved them wrong before and I believe in the people, not the pundits.”

On Sept. 2, the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center released a pre-primary poll showing Sununu leading both Democratic candidates by at least 20 percentage points.

Feltes offered kind words for his primary opponent, saying Volinsky fought hard and focused on the state’s most pressing issues. He was less generous to his general election opponent, calling Sununu out for opposing “paid family and medical leave by trying to call it an ‘income tax’ ” and saying Granite Staters deserve “a governor who is actually pro-choice, not one who just says he is around election time.”

Sununu, on Wednesday, took to Twitter to double down on his criticism of what he described as an income tax.

“We vetoed the Dan Feltes income tax twice, and we’ll stop it for good this November,” the governor wrote, referring to the paid-leave plan. “When New Hampshire says ‘No Income Tax. Not Now! Not Ever!’ we mean it!”

Volinsky, who had waited until late Wednesday morning to concede, congratulated Feltes and also took aim at the governor. “With every veto, Sununu shows he has failed the state as he stops bipartisan legislation over and over again,” Volinsky said in a statement.

He also reflected on his campaign, saying he was hesitant to run in the first place and concerned about causing damage to the people and issues I most care about if I lost.”

“We have lost — we went up against a well-oiled money-raising machine that spent twice as much as we did to win by only a few thousand votes.”

Feltes is a third-term state senator who has lived in Concord since 2006, though he’s a native of Dubuque, Iowa. After finishing his law degree, Feltes was employed by N.H. Legal Assistance, where he worked until 2014 representing families of low to moderate income, veterans and seniors.

In addition to his support for a paid family leave program, Feltes has campaigned on a platform that emphasizes long-term clean-energy planning and establishing safe school reopening plans.

State Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat who endorsed Feltes, said both he and Volinsky ran strong campaigns. Kahn said Feltes has been vocal on issues important to voters, like education, health care, environmental stewardship and bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic, and he thinks those messages will resonate with Volinsky’s supporters.

“I think that Dan will be able to communicate quickly with people that felt strongly about Andru’s candidacy,” Kahn told The Sentinel Wednesday evening. “I think they will see that Dan can be very supportive of the ideas and interests that both candidates were advocating.”

Despite his loss, Volinsky performed well in the Monadnock Region, winning at least 27 of the 31 Monadnock Region communities in The Sentinel’s coverage area.

State Rep. Jennie Gomarlo, a Swanzey Democrat, said she thought Volinsky was the best choice due to his choosing not to take “the pledge,” a New Hampshire tradition in which politicians vow to oppose a broad-based income tax. Gomarlo says she appreciated Volinsky’s unwillingness to cast aside a potential funding source.

“As a member of the ways and means [committee] that deals with the revenue side of the budget, I don’t feel in these tight times anything should be taken off the table,” she said Wednesday in an email to The Sentinel.

Though Feltes wasn’t her first choice, she thinks he will perform well in the general election. “It’s going to be an interesting eight weeks,” she said.

On the other hand, Marilyn Huston, chairwoman of the Cheshire County Republican Committee, said she thinks Sununu will have no trouble securing another term.

She said she was glad to see Sununu win an easy primary victory and commended his respond to the COVID-19 crisis, saying he has kept New Hampshire’s case and mortality rates lower than in other states. Huston said she is confident he’ll continue to manage the pandemic well if re-elected.

“I am really thrilled for the governor,” she said. “And I think it’s going to be an easy slide into a third term.”