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Residents of Peterborough development left in limbo after town-ordered ouster
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Mike Austin spent more than four hours on Christmas moving his family’s possessions from their former home in Peterborough into storage.

Both he and his wife, Rachael, have taken days off from work in the last two weeks to pack their belongings and settle into a temporary place with their two sons after having been unexpectedly ordered to vacate their home earlier this month.

The Austins were among the 25 residents at the Walden Eco-Village, where Peterborough officials found unapproved utilities connections and unauthorized residences during a Dec. 10 inspection of the sustainable-living community.

Peterborough Code Enforcement Officer Tim Herlihy told Akhil Garland, who owns the property off Middle Hancock Road, in a cease-and-desist letter the following day that all residents would have to leave by Dec. 16 and that Garland was responsible for providing them with alternative shelter.

As of Sunday, some Eco-Village residents remained in temporary housing situations provided by Garland, worried about how much longer those options will be viable and where they would go in an emergency. Others had found living arrangements elsewhere. All said they are still shocked by the abruptness of having to leave their beloved Eco-Village community less than two weeks ago.

Mike and Rachael Austin, along with their sons, Kyle and Eli, have been living at the Birchwood Inn in Temple, where Garland has paid for them to stay until at least Wednesday.

The couple finished moving the last possessions from their Eco-Village cottage of six years into storage Saturday, according to Rachael Austin. In addition to the emotional burden of being given five days to leave the property, she said moving has presented logistical challenges while both she and Mike also handle work responsibilities.

“We’re not ready to just drop everything and move,” she said. “Ideally, it takes some planning … It’s just been kind of a nightmare.”

Living at the inn can also be difficult, Austin said, since the family has been cooking meals using only a microwave and a toaster.

She had not identified any viable housing options as of Saturday evening but expressed wariness at continuing to rely on Garland, saying that he had initially pledged to fund a month-long stay at the inn.

“He definitely has to keep us somewhere,” she said. “He has to pay for us until we get into another place that’s comparable.”

But available rentals have been hard to find, according to Austin, and living with her parents in Peterborough is infeasible because her father suffers from dementia.

The family was able to enjoy Christmas at her parents’ house, however, and Kyle, 13, and Eli, 9, “have been amazing” during the moving period, she said. Still, Austin added that the situation has taken a significant toll.

“This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with,” she said. “We not only lost our house, but we lost our community, which we loved very much … It just makes me feel so low.”

Two other Eco-Village residents, Adrian Allard and Thane Burgos, have been living at the Jack Daniels Motor Inn in Peterborough since Dec. 16.

Garland has also been paying for their respective rooms, but Allard said Sunday it is unclear how much longer that arrangement will last. He said after initially renting the rooms for two nights, Garland extended their stays to this past Saturday.

He and Burgos had prepared to leave then, but they received notes from hotel staff Saturday saying that the reservations had been extended again — this time until Tuesday.

According to Allard, Garland told residents Dec. 17 that he planned to find them emergency housing for the following week before identifying longer-term options for the next three months. Allard said he has not received any more information from Garland since that email.

“Every few days, we’re ready to get out of the hotel,” he said. “… No one hears any answers from him.”

Garland could not be reached for comment Monday morning.

Allard said he and Burgos have nowhere to go if they can no longer stay at the inn. He might be able to stay on friends’ couches for about a week, if necessary, but said he would rather sleep in his car than go to a homeless shelter.

Finding housing as affordable as his small Eco-Village home, where he paid a monthly rent of $445, will be very challenging, Allard said. He added that the suddenness of the events two weeks ago is “still surreal.”

“I’ve come back from Keene a couple days … and I still go to turn down the road [to the Eco-Village], and it’s like, ‘Nope you’re not living there anymore’,” he said. “… It’s just awful timing all around [with] the pandemic, Christmas, the time of year — it’s cold.”

It has been a particularly difficult stretch for Mark Wilson, 63, whose mother died at 91 last Tuesday.

Although her death had been expected, Wilson said it compounded his sense of loss after leaving the Eco-Village cottage he and his wife, Amy, had shared since 2008. He was grateful that his son, Luke, 22, had a chance to see his mother once more after returning on winter break from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. last weekend.

“I think, as far as we can know these things, that was something she might’ve been waiting for,” Mark Wilson said.

The family has been living at a Peterborough house owned by close friends, which they had renovated and put on the market before offering it to the Wilsons when the Eco-Village situation happened.

Mark Wilson said they “landed pretty softly” compared to some of the other residents. He and Amy have been adapting to the house’s appliances, which include an oven, electrical outlets and overhead lights — all of which were either scarce or absent from their former residence.

“We keep having to turn the lights down because … it’s so bright in here,” he said. “But for reading, it’s kind of nice. Maybe we need to figure out something a little more robust in whatever we do next.”

The Wilsons plan to live at their friends’ house until the end of April, when they hope to find a rental of their own. A return to the Eco-Village appears unlikely, Mark said, after town employees shut off utilities at the site.

In the meantime, the family has been sorting through boxes of their belongings to reduce the stuff that will be joining them in the next move. (Another benefit of having Luke home, Mark Wilson noted, is that he can go through his own possessions.)

Wilson said that while Garland “made some serious mistakes,” town officials are also to blame for the situation, saying that giving residents five days to vacate their homes due to the code violations — which town officials said presented an “immediate danger” — was too severe.

“We, all the tenants, were [caught] in the middle of it,” he said. “… Pretty much everybody’s got at least one, if not two or more moves coming up. Nobody got booted out Wednesday and landed in their next [permanent] place because nobody was ready to move.”

But the outpouring of support — from friends, colleagues and other Eco-Village residents — has been tremendous, Wilson said. He described returning from his final trip to the village Dec. 16 to find a friend taking care to organize tea bags in his new pantry.

“It was just extraordinary,” he said. “To have that kind of response when you’re feeling pretty low is really amazing."

A previous version of this article incorrectly named Rachael Austin's husband. His name is Mike Austin.

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.

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Heavy flooding causes road closures in Monadnock Region
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At least one road in the Monadnock Region remained impassable Saturday evening due to heavy flooding in recent days, and several more have reopened after temporary closures.

Traffic was still being rerouted from a section of Squantum Road in Jaffrey, between Howard Hill and Woodbound roads, as of 4:30 p.m. Saturday, according to Fire Chief David Chamberlain.

Chamberlain said flooding from nearby Contoocook Lake caused the road closure Friday night. The water level had receded slightly by Saturday, but up to eight inches still covered parts of the road, he said.

In Alstead, South Woods Road also closed Friday after at least a foot of water spilled over from a culvert that crosses under the road between Cranberry Pond and Dart Brook, Fire Chief Kim Kercewich said.

First responders were unable to determine whether a blockage in the culvert had caused the flooding or if the water level was simply too high, he said. (More than two inches of rain fell between Thursday night and Saturday morning in Springfield, Vt., the closest location to Alstead with precipitation data from the National Weather Service.)

South Woods Road reopened Saturday morning, according to Alstead Road Agent Prescott Trafton, whose department manages town roads. The previously flooded area appeared to have been filled in with a fine gravel as of Sunday.

A section of Carlton Road in Swanzey, near the covered bridge crossing a local branch of the Ashuelot River, has reopened after closing Friday afternoon due to flooding, the town announced in an updated Facebook post Saturday. And the Greenfield Department of Public Works repaired a “major washout” on Coach Road, according to a Facebook post from the town Friday afternoon.

Some of the most significant flooding in the region was in Peterborough, where the Contoocook River swelled three feet and surged over a retaining wall downtown on Friday, according to Fire Chief Ed Walker. The water flooded a work site on the river’s west bank, sweeping up equipment from the town’s ongoing construction project to replace an aging bridge between Main Street and Route 202.

Walker said workers from Beck & Bellucci, the Franklin firm doing construction on the bridge, responded to the scene quickly and used cranes on site to recover propane tanks and much of the other debris floating in the water. It was the only significant flooding in town he was aware of Saturday morning.

In addition to the Contoocook River in Peterborough, the U.S. Geological Survey identified high water levels on the Ashuelot River in Gilsum and Hinsdale as of Saturday evening — though none were listed at the level required for flooding. Officials in those towns could not be reached for further information.

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Waldorf School
Monadnock Waldorf School to close at end of academic year
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After more than four decades of providing a Waldorf education to countless students in the region, the Monadnock Waldorf School plans to close its doors at the end of this academic year, the school announced Sunday.

The announcement comes on the heels of news that a Waldorf-model public charter school plans to open next fall in Keene.

Monadnock Waldorf School Communications Manager Bridget Love said by email Sunday night that the new Waldorf-inspired charter school is “very much an independent development,” pointing to other reasons for the school’s decision to close.

In a news release Love issued Sunday, the school said it has “keenly felt the impact of shifting demographics” in the region: fewer school-age children, economic issues that make tuition a struggle for some young families and “a new landscape of school choice.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, the release says, “has intensified financial pressure on the school such that a sustainable path beyond the 2020-2021 school year is no longer feasible.”

The school began the new academic year this fall with full in-person instruction, but as coronavirus infection rates surged in New Hampshire, the school shifted to remote learning, as did most schools in the region.

Founded in 1976 as a “Waldorf-inspired” nursery school in Nelson, the Monadnock Waldorf School now serves about 95 students from preschool to middle school on two campuses in Keene: 424 Old Walpole Road and 98 South Lincoln St.

The new Gathering Waters charter school plans initially to serve students in grades 1 through 9 using Public Waldorf Education. The N.H. State Board of Education approved the new charter school Dec. 10.

Gabrielle Schuerman, chair of the Gathering Waters board of directors and parent of a child who attends the Monadnock Waldorf School, said in a previous interview that supporters of the new charter school are concerned about the financial inaccessibility of private Waldorf-model schools.

Love said Monadnock Waldorf School is “certainly pleased to know that MWS families who wish to continue with Waldorf education next year will have the option to do so.”

Founded in 1919 in Germany, Waldorf education aims to cultivate a child’s unique gifts and talents at a pace that meets the child’s physical, intellectual and emotional-spiritual development.