Silver Scone neighbors allege two board members showed bias during public hearing

New Ipswich Zoning Board member Walker Farrey and David Lage deliberate during a public hearing on Thursday.

New Ipswich Zoning Board member Walker Farrey and David Lage deliberate during a public hearing on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI—

By ASHLEY SAARI

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 10-06-2023 8:04 AM

Neighbors opposed to the Silver Scone tea party business on River Road have alleged that Zoning Board of Adjustment members showed bias during the public hearing on the case last month, and should recuse themselves from deliberating on approving a variance to allow the business in a residential neighborhood.

On Thursday, the Zoning Board of Adjustment met for what was anticipated to be deliberations on a variance to allow the operation of Silver Scone Teas for up to four days a month, at 99 River Road in Village District I.

This is the second time the board is deliberating on the case. The board’s previous approval of the variance was voided and remanded to the Zoning Board to rehear after an appeal by a group of neighbors represented by attorney Nancy Clark, who is also a neighbor, to the state Housing Appeals Board. One of the Housing Appeals Board findings was that ZBA member Danielle Sikkila showed bias by “liking” a Facebook post discussing using the house as a business.

In this new round of hearings, Sikkila, as well as member Lou Alvarez, who is also a member of Select Board and has ruled on other issues related to Silver Scone, recused themselves and were replaced by alternates.

Just before the board was set to start deliberations on the new hearing for Silver Scone, Clark requested that two other members of the board, including one of the sitting alternates, recuse themselves for what she said was showing bias – Dwayne White and Vice Chair David Lage.

Clark alleged that during the public hearing on the variance Sept. 21, in an exchange between board members and the audience about 2 1/2 hours into the hearing, an audience member suggested Silver Scone owner Jane Elwell invite the Planning Board to tea. Elwell agreed to the sentiment, saying the Planning Board and Zoning Board members were welcome.

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Clark alleged that in a recording of the meeting, Lage replied to the comment in a light-hearted manner, saying, “You just said no men,” and that White had said, “I’d go.”

“Dwayne White’s statement was a purely voluntary statement of desire to attend a tea at the applicant’s home. It demonstrates bias in support of the applicant and requires recusal,” Clark said.

The exchange also highlighted Lage’s “jovial, friendly and supportive attitude towards the applicant,” Clark said. According to Clark, that attitude was at odds with the attitude Lage had shown toward her clients, which she called “a chronic pattern of behavior to harass, intimidate, belittle and argue with” the people she represented, and that on the Sept. 21 hearing, Lage had shouted at, interrupted or argued with five of her clients.

Clark called for the recusal of both White and Lage.

Lage declared he did not intend to recuse himself, saying to Clark, “Unless the board feels I should recuse, I’ll let you appeal that to another authority.”

White stated he did not recall saying he would attend a tea, and wished to verify the statement on the recording. White said regardless of his recollection, he would be willing to recuse himself if it meant the difference between being able to continue with deliberations or a delay in proceedings. Chair Walker Farrey said he also did not recall the comment, or the context in which it might have been made, and said he would also like to review the recording, as well as consult the town’s counsel on the matter.

The board discussed continuing the hearing for one week to allow the review of the tapes and consultation with the board’s lawyer. Ray Holmes, Elwell’s boyfriend and a resident of New Ipswich, objected to the continuance, saying it was Clark and her clients’ intent to delay proceedings.

“That’s her whole intent. We need to move forward,” Holmes said.

Farrey noted that if the board did not proceed with thorough care, there was the possibility of the case being appealed, overturned and remanded to the board once again, which he said would only further delay a decision.

The board agreed to continue the hearing until Oct. 12 at 6 p.m.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 603-924-7172, Ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on X @AshleySaariMLT.