ROCHESTER — A legal battle between the city and the organization that runs the Granite State Fair is heading to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
In a court order issued last month, the Superior Court granted the city’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Rochester Agricultural and Mechanical Association (RAMA) seeking relief after the city’s zoning board ruled. rejected the group’s request to hold motor racing events at the Lafayette. Street fairgrounds at times other than during the fair.
Donald Whittum, solicitor for RAMA, which runs the fair, confirmed he had lodged an appeal with the High Court.
Rochester City Attorney Terence O’Rourke said recently that he has yet to receive the call.
The Superior Court upheld the city’s assertion that RAMA, the fair’s organizers, should have appealed the decision rather than seek redress in court. The court agreed, saying that since RAMA had not taken this action, the court had no jurisdiction over the complaint.
RAMA’s argument is that since motor racing events have been taking place on the fairgrounds for many years, the application should be grandfathered and should not require going through town councils to approval.
The city countered that fair activities do not automatically exclude additional motor racing activities outside of fair dates.
The dispute now unfolds in the middle of the fair, which completed its first four-day run on Sunday and will continue with a final four-day run from Thursday to Sunday September 22-25.
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RAMA, a nonprofit, filed a lawsuit in May against the city, saying it was trying to curtail longtime activities at the Granite State Fairgrounds (72 Lafayette St.) by denying l authorization of a motor racing event.
RAMA, the board of directors of the Granite State Fair and its grounds, argued that it had the right to hold the motor racing event and should be exempt from annual city approval, as this has been allowed in the past. The racing event adds to the activities organized during the more than century-old annual fair. Organizers have called motor racing a way to raise money to help support the fair.
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City leaders argue that activities besides the fair are not exempt and must go through land use boards for approval each time. Motor racing events and a demolition derby are permitted during the fair each year in the fall, but the city argues that separate summer events require a different approval process.
RAMA, through its attorney Whittum, filed a motion in Strafford County Superior Court for declaratory judgment against the city after the Rochester Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the requested permit for the event of motor racing and declined in April to grant a re-hearing on the decision.
Whittum, who is one of the fair’s directors, represented RAMA as counsel in the case before the Rochester ZBA and is the attorney of record for the lawsuit, along with Somersworth’s attorney Marcia Brown . He said automotive-related events had been held at the fairground since its inception, with the fair held every year since 1874 except for one year during World War II, in 2017 for financial reasons and in 2020 due to due to the coronavirus pandemic.
City officials filed a motion in June to dismiss the case, saying the denial was correct and that RAMA failed to follow the proper appeal process. The lower court agreed.
In his brief, city attorney Terence O’Rourke said RAMA should have filed a court appeal against the ZBA’s refusal, not a motion for judgment. Thus, he declared that the court lacked jurisdiction without first ruling on an appeal.
O’Rourke went on to say that RAMA never challenged the legality of the ZBA’s decision or even named the board in the petition, so there is no reversal decision.
In response, Whittum argued that RAMA has “grandfathered” rights to the activities taking place at the fairgrounds because similar activities have always taken place there, so a motion for declaratory relief is appropriate.
Whittum said the city’s efforts to deny RAMA’s vested interests in the property are illegal because they attempt to deny uses that have been taking place for more than 50 years, and before current zoning ordinances were in place, so the ordinances do not apply.