By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — The town has abandoned plans to participate in a regional planning project, fearing it wouldn’t have any say in decisions.
Selectmen decided this week not to take part in A Granite State Future, a three-year initiative launched by the state’s nine regional planning commissions in conjunction with the federal government. The program’s mission is to develop comprehensive plans for towns through community input.
The board voted, 3-2, against participating, with some selectmen saying there would be a loss of local control if Salem joined.
“The group behind it doesn’t seem to support private-property rights,” Selectman Stephen Campbell said.
Joining the group has become a hot issue in at least a half dozen New Hampshire towns, including Windham and Danville, for the same reason — loss of local control. After a lot of debate, Windham joined. Danville did not.
Participation became an issue in town this fall after several Salem and Windham residents voiced their opposition to selectmen.
The group, led by Ken Eyring of Windham, said the federally-funded program would wrest control from communities. The towns would be forced to abide by federal restrictions, they said.
“We have a system of government and it’s being usurped,” Eyring said.
Selectmen voted in October to have Town Manager Keith Hickey ask the Nashua Regional Planning Commission and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development how the town would be impacted if it joined.
The planning commission said the town would retain local control, but selectmen became frustrated when no response was received from the federal government. They decided to resolve the issue as soon as possible.
While Campbell and Selectman Everett McBride opposed the program, Selectmen James Keller and Michael Lyons supported participation.
Keller and Lyons agreed with Hickey and Community Development Director William Scott that Salem could benefit from A Granite State Future’s research on planning issues.
“I’m not in agreement that the federal government is usurping our rights,” Keller said last week. “I would like to see us participate.”
Hiring a consultant to provide the same information would cost thousands of dollars, Hickey said. There would be no cost to the town to participate in the program, funded through a $300,000 federal grant.
Last week, board Chairman Patrick Hargreaves, who would cast the deciding vote, said he was still researching the issue and had not made up his mind.
On Monday, Hargreaves decided joining the program was not in the town’s best interests, citing the potential loss of local control.
“It just seemed it wasn’t fit for Salem,” Hargreaves said later. “I like having control within the confines of Salem.”
Selectmen also decided to hold off on approving formation of the town’s casino advisory committee until Jan. 28. The panel is expected to have nine members, but Hargreaves said he would like to expand that number to 11 to provide better community presentation.
Selectmen have unanimously agreed to help bring a multimillion-dollar casino to Rockingham Park. But first, state lawmakers need to allow expanded gambling in the New Hampshire.
Daniel Norris, head of the advocacy group NH Casino Now, told selectmen the town needs to have the committee in place as soon as possible. He said Wednesday approval of casino gambling is “absolutely critical” to New Hampshire’s economic well-being.
The board voted to send several citizen petition articles to the ballot without its recommendation. Each requested funding for local organizations or projects.
They included $175,000 to reconstruct Field Avenue; $10,000 for the Boys & Girls Club of Salem; $10,000 for The Upper Room, A Family Resource Center; $5,000 for Family Promise; and $4,500 for Salem Youth Softball.