by Katherine Cox
A Breath of Fresh Air
By the time the first train came to town in 1881, Bethlehem was one of the most renowned summer resorts in North America and the town, established in 1799, was thriving. The pristine air, coupled with Bethlehem’s Alpine beauty in the shadow of the Presidential Range, had drawn people to town by the thousands via stagecoach and wagon. Thirty grand hotels as well as many smaller establishments welcomed them. These lavish hotels offered hospitality and respite for writers, artists and the wealthy escaping the heat and crowds of the cities.
But the railroad brought new heights of tourism, and by the turn of the century, eight to 10 trains a day would unload passengers at five different stations in town. The trains also brought a new group of visitors as the word spread to the cities about Bethlehem’s healthy, pollen-free air. Doctors would prescribe a sojourn in town as treatment for many of their patients suffering respiratory ailments. People who suffered from hay fever and asthma found their symptoms subside and even go away when they stayed in Bethlehem. Many of those sufferers were urban Jews plagued by the ragweed that infested many cities. By the early 1920s, a sizable Jewish community was established, although they were not always treated with the hospitality Bethlehem was famous for. Many hotels denied them service, and the two golf clubs that flank Main Street would not allow them to play on their courses. Undaunted, the Jews built or bought their own hotels, built a 9-hole golf course of their own, and founded a synagogue. They even opened a kosher butcher store and grocery store.1
More significant, however, was the establishment of the Hebrew Hay Fever Relief Association in the late 1920s. Bethlehem’s high altitude and northern forest made it the perfect sanitarium for city folks suffering from hay fever, asthma and other respiratory ailments. As reports of seemingly miraculous recoveries from the debilitating symptoms of hay fever spread, Bethlehem once again capitalized on its unique location and advertised itself as a clean air refuge. With the advent of air conditioning and medications to control hay fever and asthma, the numbers of people migrating to Bethlehem for pollen relief eventually declined. Jewish tourism, however, helped Bethlehem survive World War I and the Depression, when fewer people were able to travel and the heyday of the grand hotels declined.
Bethlehem’s fortunes improved again during World War II, when travel to Europe became dangerous and gasoline shortages kept people close to home. The hotels came alive again with music and activities, but it was a brief revival. By the late 1940s, hotels were being torn down and many were destroyed by fires. A few still stand, but the historic days of prosperity are gone. Nevertheless, the people of Bethlehem have a fierce pride in their history and their reputation for clean, clear air and beautiful mountain scenery. When they sensed a threat to that legacy, they launched a decades-long defense against a seemingly unstoppable force.
A Controversy Poisons the Air
Bethlehem’s population of 2,200 is today a mix of families who can trace their roots back for generations, summer residents with second homes in town, retirees, families who have migrated from the cities, and alumnae of the short-lived Franconia College, just up the road. It is now primarily a bedroom community of nearby Littleton and other surrounding cities and towns.
Main Street is a quiet stretch of a few miles of Route 302, dotted with antique shops, a couple of hotels, a library, a town hall, a coffee shop, a café, an artisan shop and gallery, an ice cream shop and the historic Colonial Theatre. A bank, grocery store, restaurant, and hair salon are also sandwiched between the town-owned Bethlehem Country Club at one end of Maine Street and the privately owned Maplewood Golf Course at the other. Both are Donald Ross-designed courses and are a point of pride in town. The Bethlehem Heritage Museum and Visitors Center, about midway through town, is a treasure trove of historical records and memorabilia. The Bethlehem Elementary School, built in 1931, is a Main Street landmark where students from Kindergarten through Grade 6 attend classes.
Main Street has risen and fallen with the economic tides, both nationally and regionally, with boarded up storefronts at one point reflecting the town’s changing fortunes. In 1982 a citizens group formed to bring back Main Street and revitalize the community. The Bethlehem Redevelopment Association worked to promote business and raised money to help Main Street businesses with any needed renovations. They bought and tore down derelict buildings, and purchased and renovated the historic Colonial Theater in 2001.
It was part of a resurgence of merchant activity that began in 2000 and included the WREN (Women’s Rural Enterprise Network) shop and gallery featuring the works of artisans and craftspeople, and Cold Mountain Café, among other establishments that moved into Main Street.
Cold Mountain Café, a favorite gathering spot, is a friendly place, with townspeople dropping in, greeting their neighbors and staying for lunch or dinner. A frequent topic of discussion is the local landfill on Trudeau Road, not far from the village. What started out as a small town dump owned by resident Harold Brown in 1976 is now a massive regional landfill owned by an out-of-state company that takes in 500-600 tons of garbage a day.
It has been the focus of a dispute that began back in the 1980s and has polarized the town and tied up local government for years. “Both sides argue in the most grim and vicious of terms,” said Len Reed, one of the founders of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Association and a resident since 1978. Suspicion and distrust cloud any conversation regarding the landfill, with rumors and accusations poisoning the air between opponents of the landfill and its ongoing expansion and supporters who believe revenue from the landfill could offset the high property taxes weighing on residents. Caught in the middle are residents who have grown weary of the acrimonious fighting and endless legal battles that have landed the controversy in the New Hampshire Supreme Court twice. Yet the voters of Bethlehem have made clear time and again – by some counts the issue has been before the voters 18 times – that they are firmly opposed to further expansion of the landfill. That has not stopped North Country Environmental Services, a subsidiary of Casella Waste Systems, the Rutland, Vt., company that owns the landfill, from challenging the town in court on many fronts, including zoning ordinances, tax assessments, and tipping fees. Over the years, Casella has been successful in winning the requisite operating and expansion permits from the state. But opponents of expansion efforts have not given up and have been successful themselves in gaining what they call “little victories” in the battle that commenced in 1985. At that time Sanco, Inc., owned the landfill, which had grown to 14 acres, and sought a zoning amendment from the Bethlehem Zoning Board of Adjustment to further expand, to 41 acres.
The landfill was an unlined facility, and landowners George Tucker and his son, Dan, sued the town to block the zoning exemption. They claimed contaminated liquid from the landfill was leaking onto their land and into the nearby stream that leads to the Ammonoosuc River.2 (Boston Globe story, 1987). They lost their suit – and the company won approval to expand – but it ignited a firestorm. In this small town, the clash was personal, as one of the co-owners of Sanco was Roy Sanborn, whose father, Howard Sanborn, was police and fire chief for 45 years. The Tuckers were also longtime residents, and Dan Tucker has held several positions in town over the years, including road agent and selectman. What was seen as a feud between neighbors quickly became a town-wide concern as the suit raised alarms among other residents about potential environmental hazards. Citizens groups formed to learn more about the landfill and its operations and to disseminate that information. Over the years, AWARE and Environmental Action for Northern New Hampshire have argued consistently for the town’s right to local control and raised environmental concerns that they feel threaten the very identity of Bethlehem and its pristine environment.
And in keeping with its Biblical name, landfill opponents have framed the issue as a David vs.Goliath battle: the small town with no industrial base and limited revenue (a $5.5 million annual budget) against a large company with deep pockets (revenue from the landfill is around $10 million a year) and teams of lawyers and lobbyists. For every state permit or zoning approval sought by Casella, which purchased Sanco, Inc. in 1994, the voters of Bethlehem have responded with new town laws and zoning restrictions, which the company then appeals, landing both sides in court and costing millions in legal costs. It’s a long and complex history with each side accusing the other of harassment, acting in poor faith and reneging on agreements.
A casual conversation in town reveals the volatility of the subject. Residents are fed up with the conflict and feel the controversy has absorbed too much of the selectmen’s time and that each side is adhering to its own agenda rather than working together for the good of the town. Yet a majority of voters insists that the town has a right to restrict the expansion of the facility, and the town won a crucial Supreme Court ruling in 2003 that in effect upheld that right and restricted the landfill to what had now grown to 51 acres. Supporters of the landfill argue that the years of court battles have cost the town money that could be better spent reducing high property taxes, have alienated a company that has donated money to organizations and built recreational facilities in town, and has bitterly divided the citizens. “I’m tired of the fighting,” said one innkeeper. “The bickering is poisoning the town.”
John Keller, who has lived in Bethlehem since 1959, has long been active in town affairs. He was among the group of residents that established the Bethlehem Redevelopment Association in 1982, was a key player in founding the Heritage museum in 1998, and served on the town planning board and select board. He says there are around 300 hard-core landfill opponents, about 150 supporters and “probably 800 or 900 people who just don’t give a damn.” He believes politics, not environmental concerns, has inflamed the issue, and is firmly on the side of those who protest the financial cost to the town, citing a Casella-proposed host agreement that would have paid the town $1 million a year for 10 years, but was voted down by the townspeople in 2006.
The chairman of the board of selectman scoffs at those claims. Jeanne Robillard said $150,000 a year of the town’s municipal budget is set aside for legal fees, which she said does not have a significant impact on taxes. And after years of wrangling with Casella on behalf of the town, she said, “Any agreement is suspect, based on experience, the record and history.” That distrust, widespread in town, is the reason voters rejected the company’s 2006 offer. According to Robillard, Casella offered to pay the town a share of the tipping fees NCES charges other vendors and towns who truck their trash to Bethlehem – if the town would grant an exemption to expand, essentially reversing the 2003 zoning law that limited the landfill to 51 acres. But she said that on several occasions over the years the town “thought it had agreements with Casella, but Casella has broken agreements and sued to get out of agreements.” One example she cites is the 1994 agreement to allow the town free use of the transfer station, where the town trash went before being hauled to the landfill. Instead, the town ended up paying a higher tipping fee than other towns. Then the company started challenging its yearly property tax bill, forcing the town to defend the tax it charged Casella before the state Board of Taxes and Land Appeals. “It’s a yearly game,” Robillard said. Not wanting to continue the yearly tax fight, the town offered to negotiate with Casella in 2007. Both parties agreed to an appropriate tax, she said. “When Casella got its next tax bill, it filed a complaint with the BTLA (Board of Taxes and Land Appeals).”
Robillard, who has lived in Bethlehem since 1998, says that before she became a selectman in 2005, “I didn’t really understand all the stuff that bubbled underneath” with the landfill issues. Now, based on numerous dealings with the company, “I personally believe that any agreement the town could come to with Casella is as good as the paper it’s written on. And it won’t last as long as it takes for the ink to dry on it.” She considers the 2006 vote to reject Casella’s offer another example of the townspeople’s fortitude. “People in this town have said ‘We’re not going to let you stomp on us.’”
She said the landfill issue is very emotional and influences all aspects of town life, from social cohorts to town government. “It runs like a thread through everything in this town,” she said. She doesn’t agree with those that position the controversy along political or cultural dividing lines, however. “We don’t have Republicans and Democrats. We have pro-dumpers and anti-dumpers.”
The Bethlehem landfill, which covers 51-acres and brings in five to six hundred tons of trash a day, has one of the best views in town of the Presidential Range and its neighbor, the White Mountain National Forest. Years of accumulated waste, capped with several layers of soil, till, sand, and liners, and seeded with grass, have created its own landscape, leading some to call it Mount Casella. Kevin Roy, division manager of the landfill, took over its operation in 2005 and lives in town – across the street from the landfill. He takes genuine pride in the work he and his colleagues do at the landfill and is quick to explain the operation and take visitors on tours of the site. He regularly hosts open houses and sends out newsletters, and said he and NCES comply with all state environmental rules and regulations. He says technological improvements implemented in the past five years have reduced odors; the waste that comes in is strictly screened and verified to protect against possible pollutants; gas probes measure the release of any compounds into the air that are the byproduct of waste; and groundwater is routinely monitored.
The growth of the landfill has been a steady increase in stages and phases. As each stage becomes filled to capacity, it is capped and work begins on the next stage. Stage IV was the last stage to be granted a permit by the state in 2003. But the landfill is running out of space. Nearing capacity in 2007, NCES applied for a permit to expand vertically – as town ordinance mandates that it cannot expand beyond the 51-acre footprint – by building a 40-foot earthen wall to contain waste. In a rare defeat for NCES, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services denied the permit in December 2008 saying the design was untested and did not meet state standards. It also cited concerns over groundwater contamination that was detected in five test wells near the landfill. NCES promptly appealed to the state Waste Management Council, sued DES and submitted a revised proposal downsizing the expansion plan.
With that the battleground shifted from Bethlehem to Concord, and landfill opponents in town feel vindicated. They have been pressuring DES on a number of issues relating to the landfill, and feel those issues are finally getting the attention they deserve. Among those issues is the high cancer rate in town, which the DES examined and, in an October 2008 report, concluded that there was no public health hazard from the landfill. Nevertheless, the department will continue to investigate the statistically high cancer rate in Bethlehem.
A Growing Awareness, Results
An early participant in AWARE and current president, George Manupelli is unwavering in his opposition to the landfill, its owners, its operation and its expansion. Manupelli, an artist, taught art at the University of Michigan and York University in Toronto before retiring to Bethlehem in 1995. His roots in town go much further, as he was one of the boys from the North Bennett Street School in Boston that were brought up to caddy every summer at the famous Maplewood Golf Course. Manupelli became a caddie in 1944 for several years before becoming a caddie master, and from1948 until 1953 was a gardener and groundskeeper. Years later he returned to Bethlehem and in 1976 bought an abandoned Catholic church, St. Theodore’s Church, and renovated it into a home and art studio, which he used as a vacation home before moving permanently to town.
In the early days of the landfill operation, he said the odors were stifling, “depending on which way the wind blew.” In addition to the odors, Manupelli said seepage from the landfill and a malfunctioning incinerator were issues AWARE and EA took on. He said that members of the group alerted the state Department of Environmental Services to a number of violations, but that the agency refused to act on them.
After years of fighting Casella through local ordinances that were disregarded, the group changed its focus in 2004 and began lobbying members of the state Legislature and establishing relationships with legislators, Manupelli said. “We hammered away on the health issues,” he said, and slowly the tide began to turn.
The DES ordered emissions tests in 2006, and NCES shut down the incinerator in April 2006. In 2007 the legislature closed a loophole that allowed NCES to operate as a pollution control facility and thus get a tax exemption. The taxes NCES pays to Bethlehem went from $6,000 to $175,000 a year. The 2008 ruling by the DES denying the vertical expansion of the landfill was a major victory for the town, and Selectwoman Robillard credits the DES with “fulfilling its mission statement to make sure residents of New Hampshire are not harmed.”
A Regional Solution
Bethlehem residents identify with Bethlehem’s unique history of hospitality and treasure their distinction as a place where the air is fresh and recreation unspoiled. That legacy threatened, they fought to protect it. And while they have successfully raised awareness about potential hazards at the local landfill, their trash still has to go somewhere.
It’s a challenge facing every community: how to dispose of waste safely and wisely, while maintaining control of profits and operation. More mindful than most, perhaps, town officials and residents in Bethlehem explored alternatives to their own landfill and came up with a solution in 2009 that is saving the town money and supporting a regional operation that could be a model for community waste disposal.
The waste generated in Bethlehem is hauled to the Mount Carberry Landfill in Berlin, owned by the Adroscoggin Valley Regional Refuse Disposal District, a solid waste district incorporated in 1990 as a municipality under state statute. It began operating in 2003 on the site of a former pulp and paper mill landfill and accepts waste from 31 communities in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine as well as commercial haulers contracted by towns such as Bethlehem. The landfill is considered a state-of-the-art facility. Sharon Gauthier, executive director of the district, said the landfill is double lined to protect against soil contamination, has a piping system that takes the leachate directly to a waste water treatment plant, and has an active gas collection system to eliminate odors. The district owns and controls the landfill, and has contracted with Cianbro Corp., an industrial management company based in Maine, to operate the facility. The district has an average budget of $8.4 million; tipping fees charged to towns and commercial haulers cover its expenses. They process an average of 305,500 cubic yards of waste a year, Gauthier said, and the landfill has the capacity to operate through 2048.
While no one wants a dump in their “back yard,” the Androscoggin Valley Regional Refuse Disposal District avoids many of the contentious issues – local control, environmental oversight, residential proximity – that put Bethlehem on the map again for its tenacious fight for its rights.
The saga of a dedicated group of citizens refusing to bow to a powerful adversary is emblematic of the independent North Country character and the fierce pride people have in the natural splendor of their environment. The residents of Bethlehem still have a landfill in their town, operated by an out-of-state company with profits to make and shareholders to satisfy, but they do not contribute to its revenue. And its owners know that there is a watchdog group of residents, steeped in regulatory, legal, and legislative experience.
More importantly, the Bethlehem landfill controversy provides a cautionary tale for other communities faced with appealing economic proposals from wealthy, out-of-state commercial interests. Working to develop efficient methods of regional cooperation to maintain and promote natural resource management, recreational opportunities, and public safety may in the long run prove to be a more desirable solution for the changing needs of the North Country. After all, assets like scenic beauty, community vitality, clean air and water are perhaps too precious to hand over to outside interests.
1 Bethlehem, New Hampshire: A Bicentennial History (Updated 1999 Edition).
Published by Bondcliff Books. Page 135
2 “Family Feud Fuels Battle Over Landfill in N.H.,” The Boston Globe.
By John Ellement, Globe staff; Jan. 18, 1987