Residents split over dirt road alteration in Henniker

  • There were 169 voters who showed up for town meeting in Henniker on March 18, but just as in a classroom, nobody wanted to sit in the front row. David Brooks—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Monday, March 20, 2017

A request to shift 900 feet of dirt road in one of Henniker’s most scenic areas, using a stretch of land protected by a conservation easement, turned into an extended but polite disagreement among people with very deep roots in town at Saturday’s annual meeting.

“My uncle lived on this land his whole life. He was 98 when (he died) and there were only two days in his life I know of he did not sleep in the house. That was his honeymoon,” Moe Davisonon said.

Davison said his uncle Shirle Davison placed the easement in question along hundreds of acres on either side of Quaker Street, and asked voters to reject shifting Quaker Street onto part of that easement. “His last wish was to preserve that land, keep it the same,” Davison argued.

On the other hand, there was Albert Aucion, whose family has owned hundreds of acres in what is known as the Quaker District for eight decades, and who has “driven up and down that road for my whole life, 73 years.” He supported the road being moved to make it a little safe – as did, he said, his siblings. He argued that it was consistent with the character of the rural region: “If you don’t change, you’re not alive.”

The debate, by far the longest for any article in the hearing, ended up virtually split. Voters finally voted to postpone a decision until next annual meeting by a slim 66-62 show of hands.

In other business, voters approved the budget and all warrant articles, although not before demonstrating the educational value of traditional town meeting via a half-hour discussion on the operations, legality and reasons for putting money into special purpose funds with any eye toward spending it in future years. That discussion included details about the difference between a capital reserve fund and an expendable trust fund.

Voters approved by a voice vote an operating budget of $4.98 million, up 1.1 percent or $53,684 from last year. The town’s portion of the tax rate is expected to go up 57 cents to $9.52 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, increasing the tax bill about $104 annually for a $200,000 home.

Voters also approved $100,000 as part of improvements for reconstruction of Western Avenue between the bridge and Colby Hill. This project, which the town plans to do for the cost of roughly $450,000, covers about one-third of the work needed to repair a paved road that is in such bad shape that Bob Garrison joked the road agent wouldn’t need to rent a machine to grind up the asphalt for reuse because “the pavement is already ground up.”

The discussion about Quaker Street, a gravel road dating back at least into the 1800s, was prompted by a request from Walter and Katherine Pollard to shift 900 feet of the road at 672 Quaker St. It runs between their house and garage, as part of an S-curve and a dead zone that has proved impossible to drain, creating icy pools in winter, said Jennifer McCourt of McCourt Engineering, who was hired by the Pollards.

The Pollards seek to shift the road to the far side of the garage, and say they’ll make it slightly wider (20 feet, well below modern standards but in keeping with the scenic area) and will replace trees and stone walls. They say they will pay for all the work; if voters had approved the change Saturday, the work would still have required planning board and select board approval.

Walter Pollard decided to comment on the meeting’s vote.

The complication to the plan that the new stretch of road would go through a conservation easement held by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. According to testimony from Reagan Bissonnette, director of easement stewardship for the society, the town would have to condemn the portion of the easement where the road would be shifting – and that raised concern from several speakers who feared it would undermine other conservation easements.

“I’m concerned a lot about precedent,” said Tim McComish. “Down the road people will say, ‘you condemned that section of road, now you have to condemn this one because I think it’s not safe.’ ”

Walter Pollard argued, however, that if an easement prevented a relatively small shift of a stretch of road for safety reasons, it might scare away people in the future, and “deter (them) from entering into conservation easements.”

And while nobody argued that Quaker Street by the Pollards home is easy to navigate, several speakers said that safety issues which prodded the move are vague, without good data about accidents, and not unusual for old, unpaved roads.

“I can give you numerous roads in Henniker that are much more dangerous,” said Lisa Spahl, an abutter to the property in question.

On the other hand, several speakers expressed concern about the condition of the road and were surprised that residents weren’t more enthusiastic about getting a bit of road repair done with no taxpayer spending.

Although the discussion was intense, it remained pleasantly polite – as typified by Moe Davison, who, after asking residents to block the Pollards’ request, praised them as “great people” who had proved a boon to Henniker by moving here.