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The cost of green energy in Keene? $23 extra a month

Under the current version of Keene’s draft community power program, an extra $23 a month on their electricity bill would enable Keene residents or businesses to get 100 percent of their power from renewable sources.

During a public hearing Tuesday evening, community members got a look at the expected costs of participating in the proposed program at four different levels. While an extra $23 monthly over the cost of the default level is expected to get a consumer to 100 percent renewables, $10 more a month is anticipated to increase one’s renewably sourced electricity to 50 percent, according to the current draft.

The city is also proposing a basic plan, in which a consumer would not get any additional energy from renewable sources while seeing an expected savings of about $3 per month. But the default plan — which everyone who currently uses Eversource as a supplier would be enrolled in, unless opting out — would increase the amount of energy drawn from renewable sources to the extent that it allows the city to remain competitive with the utility.

A community power program is a cornerstone of the sweeping renewable-energy plan the Keene City Council passed earlier this year, which aims to see the city transition entirely to renewable sources for electricity by 2030 and for thermal and transportation energy by 2050. The program would allow the city to purchase power on behalf of residents and businesses, giving Keene more say in where the power consumed in the city comes from.

While Keene consumers who’ve chosen their own energy supplier will be able to continue purchasing electricity from them, those who use the default supplier — Eversource — would be automatically enrolled in Keene’s community power program. However, people can also opt out of the program, or they can choose to pay more for a plan that includes a higher amount of green energy.

“Not everyone in the community is the same, and has different abilities to pay, or different interests in being connected to renewable energy,” said Patrick Roche of Good Energy, a New York-based consulting firm that has been working with Keene to develop its program. “So there are going to be different options for people who might be able to afford to pay more ....”

Under a community power program, Eversource would continue both to deliver power and serve as the billing agent. This means that, even if buying power from the city, a customer’s bill would still come from Eversource, and the power would still be supplied via Eversource’s infrastructure.

Roche said he expects that Keene’s plan will be approved by the City Council and also the N.H. Public Utilities Commission by the fall, with the hope of the city going out to bid on a power supply by the end of 2021 or early 2022. He said the timeline for implementing the program was delayed due to N.H. House Bill 315, which seeks to amend the 2019 state law governing these programs.

Roche called the bill — currently under review by the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee — “really restrictive” and said it would have made it difficult for Keene to implement the program as currently designed. But he said it appears a proposed amendment that fixes some of the concerns will move forward.

“I’m happy to say that the city, as well as our consulting team, worked with the sponsor of the bill and some other stakeholders to kind of hash out a compromise amendment to it that would satisfy all parties,” he said. “That, right now, looks to be on track for passage; it could become law at some point in the summer. And if it does, it will really enable Keene to launch its plan as originally envisioned.”

While many of the city’s concerns with HB 315 have been addressed in the amendment — such as the original bill’s limits on when tax dollars can be used on these programs and how much access the city would have to the utility’s customer data — the legislation would still increase the regulatory burden, Roche said. The bill, as amended, would still require community power programs to receive approval from the Public Utilities Commission, though that body would have to act within 60 days of receiving a plan for review.

Community members who participated in Tuesday night’s hearing, held via Zoom, expressed support for Keene’s program, with several saying they’re excited to see it launch and are looking forward to getting more of their energy from renewable sources. However, one woman said that under other community power programs, the cost of getting more energy from renewable sources is cheaper.

“They do 50 percent for no additional charge, and they do 100 percent for not much more, about $10 a month rather than $23 a month,” Suzanne Butcher said. ”How do you see it comparing ... to other ways of going to renewable energy?”

Roche explained that some parts of the country have access to cheaper renewable power than others, but one goal of Keene’s program is to focus on local sources.

Following this and previous hearings, Keene’s Community Power Committee — a group of community members appointed by Mayor George Hansel in June — will consider the input and determine whether it should be applied to the draft plan. Roche said he’s hoping to have the final version of the proposal presented to the City Council sometime in April.

More information on the proposed community power program and future public information sessions is available at keenecommunitypower.com.

A line of turkeys walks to the shore of a frozen Pearly Pond in Rindge after landing on the ice a few days before the recent thaw.

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President of Greater Keene & Peterborough Chamber to retire this year

The leader of the largest chamber of commerce in the Monadnock Region will retire later this year, the organization announced Tuesday.

Phil Suter, the president and CEO of the Greater Keene & Peterborough Chamber, will stay until the board of directors finds a successor, which he expects will be sometime this summer.

“The timing is a little bit vague, and it’s intentionally so, in order to give the board ample time to find a successor, and to make sure there’s a smooth transition,” Suter said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.

In a news release from the chamber announcing his retirement, Suter said the position, which he has held since the fall of 2013 when he succeeded Laura Keith King, “is and has been a dream job for me — always challenging and interesting.”

“The opportunity to serve the business community in the Monadnock Region is a real honor,” he said in a prepared statement. “There’s no better place in the country to live, work, learn and play than this special corner of New Hampshire. Chamber members, and the board that represents them, were amazing before the pandemic hit, and they’ve demonstrated that more than ever in the past year. But it’s time for me to move on to the next phase of my life.”

Suter, 68, said he plans to continue living in Peterborough after his retirement. Before then, he said, his top priorities include helping to lead the chamber, and the local business community, out of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continuing to oversee a smooth integration of the Keene and Peterborough chambers, which merged late last year.

“And we’re making great progress on that, so I don’t see any speed bumps there or any issues,” Suter said of the merger. “It just takes some time.”

The Greater Keene & Peterborough Chamber has more than 500 members, Suter said. (The Sentinel is a chamber member.)

Before his retirement, Suter said he also wants to continue the chamber’s efforts to promote the region, including through a multi-year marketing campaign that the organization has launched with the help of federal coronavirus relief funding. The chamber has begun the campaign with the ”Why we love it here” series of online videos, which feature local business and community leaders discussing their favorite aspects of the Monadnock Region.

Chamber board Chairman Tom Minkler said in the news release that the organization plans to start the search for Suter’s successor immediately.

“We are grateful for Phil’s leadership during his tenure,” Minkler said. “His creativity and tenacity have brought the Chamber to the next level. From the establishment of our Regional Issues Series program, and the launch of our effort to promote our region to the world, to the recent merger with the Chamber in Peterborough, Phil never stops pushing us all to be better, and for the region to be as good as we all know it is. It’s on us all to continue that..

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Eyeing Eco-Village, Peterborough residents propose tighter zoning rules

PETERBOROUGH — A petition to strip the planning board of its broad discretion over certain housing developments will go before voters in May without the board’s endorsement, after several members denounced the proposal Monday.

The zoning amendment, which nearly 60 residents filed with the town via petition Feb. 10, would repeal the planning board’s authority to change regulations on so-called Open Space Residential Development on a case-by-case basis.

Open Space Residential Development (OSRD) is meant to give developers flexibility, promote ecologically efficient use of the land and create housing for residents while maintaining the town’s rural character, according to Town Planner Danica Melone. Under Peterborough’s zoning ordinance, OSRD regulations control the size of residential lots and housing density, among other design features, and also authorize density bonuses if a proposed development meets certain criteria.

The existing ordinance allows the planning board, which reviews site plans and subdivision proposals, to modify those requirements “as deemed reasonable.” That clause has been in effect since 2004, planning board Chairwoman Ivy Vann said at a public hearing held remotely Monday.

At the hearing, supporters of the amendment said stripping board members of that authority would encourage a more democratic review process, promote consistency in town regulations and improve public trust in elected officials.

Several petitioners — many of whom live on Middle Hancock Road, near the former Walden Eco-Village — added that the amendment would help address their concerns with a plan currently before the board to build new housing on that site. However, the proposed zoning change would not apply to that project unless the developer submits a new subdivision application, according to Melone.

After the hearing, planning board members voted 5-1 against recommending the zoning amendment.

The measure will be on the ballot May 11 and will note the planning board’s opposition.

At the hearing Monday, Middle Hancock Road resident Mike Tompkins said the zoning ordinance as currently written means board members “can ignore all of the provisions, or any of the provisions, of the open-space ordinance and do what you like.

“That seems to me to be an anti-democratic system,” he said.

Tompkins argued that if the planning board wants to change zoning conditions for a certain development, residents should have a chance to vote on that change. Calling it “absurd” that board members can adjust OSRD regulations on a case-by-case basis, Tompkins said repealing that authority would help ensure Peterborough’s zoning criteria are applied consistently.

He encouraged planning board members to back the amendment, saying the measure would promote trust in local government and that people are not aware of the board’s regulatory power.

“I would wager that almost everybody didn’t realize that one sentence was buried there in the ordinance,” he said.

At least eight other residents spoke in favor of the amendment, largely echoing Tompkins’ arguments.

Meghann Wuorinen encouraged planning board members to consider whether they would feel comfortable if someone with opposing views joins the board and exercises similarly broad discretion. Peterborough Conservation Commission member Jo Anne Carr said the zoning ordinance should be revised to establish precise conditions under which a development would be exempt from OSRD regulations.

“There should at least be standards of review for waiving any of the requirements within the open-space ordinance,” she said. “And there should be criteria for granting any waivers.”

While some advocates urged the board to back their amendment based on ideological and practical appeals, others indicated a specific motive: checking residential redevelopment of the former Walden Eco-Village.

The planning board is currently considering a proposal from Eco-Village landlord Akhil Garland to subdivide the 52-acre property and create as many as 20 or 21 homes at the former sustainable-living community. Those units would include seven cottages that were part of the Eco-Village, with the rest being built as new construction, Chad Branon, an engineer with the Milford-based Fieldstone Land Consultants who is representing Garland, has told the board.

Thirty-four of the residents petitioning for the zoning change voiced concerns with the Eco-Village development plan at a public hearing March 15, in verbal or written testimony, according to draft minutes from the session.

Multiple abutters to Garland Way, which provides access to the site from Middle Hancock Road, said that while they had no issues with Eco-Village residents, they do not “trust” the development project. Others questioned why Peterborough officials would approve Garland’s proposal after inspectors found code violations at the Eco-Village and forced the community’s 25 residents to leave their homes in December.

Peterborough attorney Mark Fernald, representing a group that included several amendment petitioners, told the planning board March 15 that it should require lots in the new development to be at least three-quarters of an acre, to comply with OSRD regulations. (Board members had previously expressed interest in quarter-acre lots, exercising their discretion to adjust those restrictions.)

In an interview with The Sentinel, Fernald argued that the board is abusing that authority.

“The planning board is taking the position that the four pages [of OSRD restrictions] are just suggestions, which they can toss out based on that sentence,” he said.

At Monday’s hearing, multiple residents cited the lot-size issue as part of their arguments in favor of the zoning amendment.

Conservation Commission Co-Chair Francie Von Mertens said the commission is not opposed to quarter-acre lots at the former Eco-Village but would prefer that plan receive formal scrutiny, calling it the “traditional way of doing open-space planning.” Liz Peters said that under legal review, she felt the OSRD’s three-quarter-acre requirement would prevail over the proposal for quarter-acre lots.

“I don’t feel like there should be a vague mention [in the zoning ordinance] that allows this small group to decide for a greater number of us Peterborough residents,” she said, referring to the planning board.

Board member Alan Zeller said after the hearing Monday that despite his opposition to quarter-acre lots at the former Eco-Village, he does not support repealing the board’s authority to adjust OSRD requirements.

“I think occasionally we do need some flexibility,” he said.

Vann, the planning board chairwoman, encouraged residents to consider the long-term effects of the zoning change instead of its impact on the Eco-Village redevelopment. Vann added that she found it “troubling” for a small group of people to propose a major change to the zoning ordinance without extensive public debate.

Board member Sarah Steinberg-Heller told the petitioners that while she understands their distrust toward Garland, she thinks the proposed zoning change needs further consideration.

“I feel like it is haphazardly taking a tool out of our toolbox,” she said. “If we want to take a tool out of our toolbox, let’s take some time.”

Steinberg-Heller, Vann and Zeller voted with Lisa Stone and selectboard representative Tyler Ward against recommending the zoning amendment. Andrew Dunbar voted in favor.

Since Garland proposed expanding the former Eco-Village before residents filed their amendment, the planning board can consider the project — and adjust OSRD requirements — as allowed by the existing zoning ordinance, according to Melone, the town planner. If he submits a different plan before town meeting, however, Melone said it would need to comply with the proposed zoning change.

“As soon as a petition is made, any new applications received after the date of the petition being received must follow the proposed regulations until Town Meeting,” she told The Sentinel in an email.

At their March 15 hearing, planning board members considered rejecting Garland’s current application and requesting that he bring a new proposal to the board, according to the draft minutes. They decided against that option, however, and asked Garland to proceed with plans for quarter-acre residential lots while also requesting hydrology and wetlands studies to weigh the development’s possible ecological impact.

Garland said Tuesday he was not aware of the proposed zoning change but called local concerns over his expansion project “misplaced.”

He defended the plan to have quarter-acre residential lots, arguing that it wouldn’t change the area’s rural character because the rest of the property would remain farmland or forest. Garland said he remains committed to that proposal, adding that he will “follow the lead of what the planning board was looking for.”

“The quarter-acre just works with this concept of clustering dwellings together … and building community,” he said.

The planning board is scheduled to continue the Eco-Village subdivision hearing April 12.

State parks see an early start, thanks to disappearing snow

An early end to winter has meant an early opening for some state parks, and officials throughout the state are bracing for another onslaught of visitors, although COVID-19 restrictions will continue to complicate things.

“Last year, with COVID, March still had snow on the ground, but we noticed a big uptick in visitors. We’re looking for that to happen again this year. People are looking for ways to get out,” said Brent Wucher, spokesman for the Division of Parks and Recreation.

Several popular state parks have already opened because snow has disappeared from roads or parking areas, including Bear Brook, Pawtuckaway, Monadnock and Odiorne. More could open soon.

All are requiring reservations for parking spots. That system was tested in 2019 for Monadnock State Park, one of the most popular, and has been expanded to deal with crowds.

Wucher pointed to Wellington State Park on Newfound Lake. “By 9 a.m. we were turning people away. We don’t want to make parking lots bigger … but if people have driven three hours to get to a park we don’t want to turn them away. This works out perfectly for us,” he said.

The reservation system allows people to keep a parking spot all day.

“You can go get lunch and return and know that your spot will be there,” he said.

The White Mountain National Forest is on its regular schedule, with 18 campgrounds opening the week of May 21. Hancock and Barnes Field campgrounds are open year-round. Reservations can be made via the website.

Parking restrictions in Franconia Notch will return this year, with shuttle service from the Cannon Mountain parking lot starting later this spring.

The shuttle started before COVID-19 hit because the popularity of hiking trails in that area overwhelmed trailhead parking lots, leading to hundreds of cars parking on the shoulder of the highway on summer weekends. Last year’s surge in interest in outdoor activities in the face of pandemic shutdowns only increased the need.

Many restrictions put in place during the pandemic will continue, including no public restrooms for the time being. Visitor services will be provided through service windows, and masks are required.

Wucher said some shortfalls that occurred last year due to the novelty of the pandemic have been overcome.

“Last year three campgrounds didn’t open because we didn’t have staff. This year, there are a lot of applications coming in. We’re opening all campgrounds and all our day-use parks will be open this year.

“We’re anticipating a very busy year,” he said.