Sununu to enact emergency drought rules

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Graphic/Department of Agriculture

PEMBROKE, NH – For the first time in 23 years, Gov. Chris Sununu said he anticipates announcing a severe drought law soon throughout the state.

He asked members of the Executive Council Wednesday to be prepared to vote by phone on a unique emergency law to prohibit outdoor fires near public woodlands to prevent forest fires.

This would include smoking of any kind near public woods.

It would still allow for campfires at campgrounds which are manned, however, and fire pits in people’s own backyards.

The state has not had substantial rain for weeks and that has impacted private wells some of which have gone dry and forced communities to institute water bans on lawns and washing of cars.

Crops, particularly in the state’s south and east counties of Rockingham and Hillsborough, have been impacted.

“Because we are currently in a…severe drought situation,” Sununu said, “we are looking at a prohibition on the kindling of any open fires and smokers and smoking near woodlands.”

“If folks want to do a backyard fire, with what they call a Category 1 or Category 2 fire in their fire pits that’s fine. It’s really about making sure we put some limitations on public fires in public spaces,” Sununu told the executive council at the end of its regular meeting Wednesday.

He said it was just finalized and handed to him shortly before the meeting began at 10 a.m.

“We will send this out to you. Technically I sign it but it needs a verbal approval,” of the council, he said.

Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli of Nashua said she had never heard of something like this coming before the council before.

Sununu said it was the first time such a law has needed to be invoked in 23 years.

“I don’t see any penalties,” said Pignatelli after Sununu read the order, noting they probably should be notified of penalties included in the law.

Executive Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, said he would also want a definition of what a “woodland” is and what the distance would be from the woodland that fires could not be lit.

Sununu said his legal counsel would call them with details.
The state Division of Forest and Lands would enforce the law and any fire shall require a written permit.

Pignatelli said, as she has done every meeting for months, that she objects to the CARES Act items not coming before the council as she reads the Constitution.

Sununu has maintained he has the authority to unilaterally act on CARES Act expenditures and set up a bipartisan GOFERR Commission to advise him on such expenditures.

Route 93 Expansion

During the meeting, Executive Councilor Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, raised concern about the stalled Exit 4A project of the Interstate 93 expansion to the state line at Massachusetts.

He said he wanted to know “how and why” and what were the add-ons for the Department of Transportation to increase the price another $30 million. The project’s estimate went from $50 million to $80 million.

Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan said she is unable to discuss the contracts in detail right now.

She said the design-build team came in with a larger price than anticipated.

“We intend to sit down with the teams and should have more information after the analysis,” she said.

Gatsas said he wanted a “near-term answer,” perhaps in October, because a lot of people are concerned about the cost estimates and the stalling of the project.

Sununu said the state needs to define what it can disclose publicly first.

He said the skyrocketed cost was a huge surprise to him and noted he would have been surprised if it had gone up by $5 million to $55 million.

Sununu said he would like a briefing from the department for the council at its next meeting on Oct. 7.

Fuel Assistance

With the heating season approaching or in some cases, here, the council authorized a number of federal grant contracts to help residents.
It included funds to:

  • Southern NH Services Inc., Manchester, for $11,313,780.
  • Community Action Program Belknap-Merrimack Counties Inc., Concord, for $3,738,649
  • Southwestern Community Services Inc., Keene, for $3,221,041.
  • Tri-County Community Action Program Inc., Berlin, for $4,516,446.
  • Community Action Partnership of Strafford County, Dover, for $2,205,084.

Pardon Hearing

The council and governor unanimously agreed to hold a pardon hearing for Kristopher Casey, 38.

Casey is seeking a pardon for the convicted offenses of conspiracy to commit burglary, burglary, arson – accomplice liability, arson, and conspiracy to commit theft by unauthorized taking.

Pignatelli said she had planned to vote against it earlier when she read that restitution was not fully paid.

“But when I saw the children here, I met the gentleman,” she said of Casey and asked about the restitution.

She said he told her if he was allowed a hearing he could explain “so with that information I will be changing my vote to receive an explanation.”

Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and a representative of the Merrimack County Attorney’s office addressed the council.

Restitution has been paid, according to the Merrimack County Attorney and the office would agree to a pardon.

A hearing will be scheduled in the future.

Resignations, Confirmations

The council accepted the resignation of Justice Bruce Cardello of Plainfield from the state Circuit Court.

It confirmed David Stack of Bow and Amanda Cormier of Hudson to the Enhanced 9-1-1 Commission and also confirmed Joseph Favaza of Manchester to the Higher Education Commission, among other confirmations.

Kingston Road

The commission authorized the Department of Transportation to authorize the Bureau of Right of Way’s petition to appoint a Special Committee to hold a hearing on the proposal to reconstruct and widen NH Route 125 in Kingston to improve safety and access control along the corridor. The proposal includes realignments of Kingston Road, Happy Hollow Road, and Colonial Road.

Safe Stations

Gatsas asked as he has for the past six months, for an update on Safe Stations in the major cities of the state. The numbers are not complete right now, he was told.

Officials of the department said they would be happy to work with Gatsas. Sununu asked for a spreadsheet and integration of safe stations with the Doorway System and changes to provide more help for those facing substance abuse and all the services people are getting.

Gatsas asked also about the syringe program and said he went by Veteran’s Park in Manchester this past weekend and said there is a company with syringes in five-gallon buckets.

“I am not sure this is appropriate,” and he said he worried about the education being provided to individuals.

He was told Health and Human Services sent him and the City of Manchester a letter this morning to further explain what the contract is and what is being done to provide “wrap-around” services for the public.

Katya Fox of the DHHS Division of Behavioral Health was asked about an existing sole-source contract with NFI North Inc., Contoocook, NH to expand its community Transitional Housing Program for adults who have a severe mental illness or severe and persistent mental illness, by increasing the number of beds from 60 to 76 and increasing the price by $2,079,800 from $2,400,000 to $4,479,800 with no change to the completion date of June 30, 2022.

“This is not a service where we have a lot of providers jumping up and down to provide,” she said.

Bias Awareness Grant

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky of Concord asked for a further explanation of a contract with the University of New Hampshire to provide bias awareness training to department staff and community-based stakeholders, in the amount of $295,689.

This would include law enforcement officers, he was told.
The sole-source contract was approved through May 31, 2022, with the option to renew for up to two additional years and the source for funding is 100 percent federal funds.

Informational Items

Councilor Michael Cryans, D-Hanover, asked about CARES Act funds which expire at the end of the year and noted if that deadline was extended that more broadband money would be able to flow to projects in rural areas that have limited connectivity with the internet.

Sununu said he met Tuesday with Vice President Mike Pence to discuss his concerns that the CARES Act date should be extended and he was told it is out of the hands of the Administration and is something that Congress must act upon because of the way the law is written.

“Congress is still in session. There are eight days to go. There is still an opportunity,” Sununu said. “It is a very easy issue for them to take up, to extend it,” he said.

He noted that it would be a no-cost issue for them and urged people to contact the delegation.

The CARES Act money will provide for 6,500 new connections with the first $14 million and the state could do another 14,000 connections with the dollars already earmarked, but the problem is the projects have to be completed by Dec. 31.

“The dollars won’t go unused, they won’t go back to Washington,” Sununu said, but be put into other pandemic relief initiatives.

He said people are moving from New York and Boston to rural areas of the state but lack of internet service could be a hindrance.

“You’d be shocked by how bad the connectivity is in some small communities,” he said.