Sawmill dust-up generates plenty of buzz

Friday, May 19, 2017

WESTHAMPTON — A special permit for a controversial wood-chipping operation — a dispute brewing since 2012 — is up for public hearing on Tuesday.

David Cotton, owner of Dodge Maple Grove Farm and operator Cotton Tree Service Inc., is seeking the permit to operate the sawmill on Northwest Road.

He filed an application for the permit in 2013, and the Planning Board denied it in 2015 after many public hearings. Cotton then filed a complaint in Hampshire Superior Court against the Planning Board and town clerk in 2015.

Since then, attorneys for the town and the business have hammered out terms of an agreement that allows the business to operate, but imposes many restrictions in an effort to reduce noise and other complaints neighbors have voiced for some time.

Residents who want Cotton’s operation gone have asked the state attorney general for help and created a website to argue why a sawmill in that area is a bad idea.

The Planning Board is expected to take public comment at the meeting. If the board does not approve the permit, the court will issue it based on the agreement filed in court on April 3. The board has 60 days from April 3 to vote to approve, court records state.

Planning Board Chairman Mark Schwallie declined to comment.

The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall, 1 South Road.

The agreement

The proposed special permit contains several conditions, including:

The sawmill’s portable wood-processing equipment must be a minimum of 500 feet from a home.

The number of commercial vehicles coming and going from the property is capped a roughly about four per day.

“No more than 120 trucks requiring a commercial driver’s license will enter carrying materials into the site or carry materials during a monthly period,” the proposed decision states.

Other conditions limit the times and days of certain operations. For example, the business can only operate the wood chipper, stump grinder, band saw or any other wood processing equipment on the property Tuesday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Cotton’s wood-chipping operation has been a concern among residents since 2012.

That year, building inspector Charles Miller issued a cease and desist order on the property after receiving complaints from residents.

“They complained that he was running a business operation in a residential space,” Miller said.

Neighbor complaints

The noise, multiple trucks coming in and out on a daily basis, and visibility of the site from their house led Sarah and Mark Challet to move across town two years ago, leaving behind a home they built where they spent seven years of their life.

Cotton counters that his wood-chipping business is “low-key” and not a huge, industrial operation. Much of the work is done with a portable sawmill, he said.

About a dozen residents who live nearby think differently and are taking action.

“It looks like a strip mining operation,” said Paul Silvernail, of Northwest Road.

Silvernail and other residents created lawn signs to disperse around town stating “no commercial sawmills” on one side and on the other side “save our town,” directing readers to the website ourwesthampton.com.

The website, which went live Thursday, features a variety of documents — attorney letters, cease and desist orders, Planning Board minutes and court documents. The site is embedded with the sound of an industrial saw.

Cotton hasn’t seen the website yet.

“I’m not a computer guy,” he said. “I’m a farmer and an arborist.”

He said a few neighbors had reached out to him directly with complaints, but they weren’t able to reach a middle ground.

For Silvernail, the main issue with the wood-chipping operation is the noise. He said he can hear vehicles’ jack brakes from down the street, and in a town so quiet, everything echoes.

Another problem for Silvernail is the effect on property value. He said a commercial sawmill in a residential area will decrease the value of nearby homes. Using information from property value website Zillow, the website also lists the total value of all properties on Northwest Road, adding the values up to roughly $19 million.

Some Northwest Road homeowners sent a letter to the attorney general’s office, urging them to intervene and send representatives to the Planning Board meeting scheduled prior to the hearing at 6 p.m.

“We have seen that the rule of law is not followed here when a ‘favorite’ of elected officials wants something from a board in town,” residents wrote.