Clear
39°
Clear
Hi 63° | Lo 41°
Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: In Henniker, cloudy times on a sunny day

  • Stephen, who didn't want  his last name used, picks up his son Devlin, 6 months, to comfort  him as his daughter Victoria, 4, plays at their campsite at Rock 'n' Birch campground in Henniker on Friday, February 21, 2014.  Though many people live at the campground year round, they are not considered residents of the town of Henniker and the town refuses to give them assistance if needed.  <br/><br/>(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

    Stephen, who didn't want his last name used, picks up his son Devlin, 6 months, to comfort him as his daughter Victoria, 4, plays at their campsite at Rock 'n' Birch campground in Henniker on Friday, February 21, 2014. Though many people live at the campground year round, they are not considered residents of the town of Henniker and the town refuses to give them assistance if needed.

    (ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

  • Megan Decatur sits for a portrait with her dog Cujo at the campsite she shares with her cousin year round at Rock 'N' Birch Campground in Henniker on Thursday, February 20, 2014.  Though many people live at the campground year round, they are not considered residents of the town of Henniker and the town refuses to give them assistance if needed.<br/><br/>(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

    Megan Decatur sits for a portrait with her dog Cujo at the campsite she shares with her cousin year round at Rock 'N' Birch Campground in Henniker on Thursday, February 20, 2014. Though many people live at the campground year round, they are not considered residents of the town of Henniker and the town refuses to give them assistance if needed.

    (ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

  • Charlie Eggers II, left, stands for a portrait with his son Dan Rust, on roof, at his campsite at Rock 'N' Birch Campground in Henniker on Thursday, February 20, 2014.  Though many people live at the campground year round, they are not considered residents of the town of Henniker and the town refuses to give them assistance if needed.<br/><br/>(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

    Charlie Eggers II, left, stands for a portrait with his son Dan Rust, on roof, at his campsite at Rock 'N' Birch Campground in Henniker on Thursday, February 20, 2014. Though many people live at the campground year round, they are not considered residents of the town of Henniker and the town refuses to give them assistance if needed.

    (ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

  • Stephen, who didn't want  his last name used, picks up his son Devlin, 6 months, to comfort  him as his daughter Victoria, 4, plays at their campsite at Rock 'n' Birch campground in Henniker on Friday, February 21, 2014.  Though many people live at the campground year round, they are not considered residents of the town of Henniker and the town refuses to give them assistance if needed.  <br/><br/>(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)
  • Megan Decatur sits for a portrait with her dog Cujo at the campsite she shares with her cousin year round at Rock 'N' Birch Campground in Henniker on Thursday, February 20, 2014.  Though many people live at the campground year round, they are not considered residents of the town of Henniker and the town refuses to give them assistance if needed.<br/><br/>(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)
  • Charlie Eggers II, left, stands for a portrait with his son Dan Rust, on roof, at his campsite at Rock 'N' Birch Campground in Henniker on Thursday, February 20, 2014.  Though many people live at the campground year round, they are not considered residents of the town of Henniker and the town refuses to give them assistance if needed.<br/><br/>(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

Like any family-oriented community, residents at the Rock ’N’ Birch Campground in Henniker enjoyed last Thursday’s warmer weather.

Parents walked their dogs, kids in tow. They chatted with neighbors on snow-covered street corners. They shoveled snow off their roofs. They spoke about the upcoming weekend of karaoke, held at a meetinghouse on the grounds.

Beneath those rosy Main Street trimmings, however, are low-income people – backed by a retired architect and the director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance – who say they’re being denied town welfare benefits that they are entitled to.

Town officials choose their words carefully in responding to that claim. They say they’ll provide aid to anyone who follows proper procedures and seeks help elsewhere first, and that they’re expanding the town Human Service Department to provide more guidance.

Adding to this contentious mix is the campground and its owner, Ray Panetta, who has long been feuding with the town over his right to rent to campers year-round, raising issues about the residency of people despite their deep roots.

While the issue is tangled, this much is clear: Local officials are hesitant to comment, while some who live at Birch are confused and frustrated.

At the heart of the matter are people like Steve, who declined to give his last name because he spent 36 months in jail for receiving stolen property.

He’s a builder in the summer and is trying to rebuild his life at Birch, where he lives with his girlfriend and her four children.

“They told me because I was not a resident of the town of Henniker that I could not receive benefits,” Steve said. “I’m trying for a new start and I love it here, but there are people who need help, and some need it a lot more than I do.”

Panetta, the camp’s owner, shakes his head side to side when children are in need as well.

The school district added a 14-person van, at a cost of $16,200 per year, to bus Birch’s growing number of children to the Henniker Community School, said Patti Osgood, the community outreach coordinator for the district.

But while the kids attend school and parents pay property taxes, that does not mean these Henniker families are legally residents.

In fact, by law, they’re not even allowed to be at Birch on a year-round basis.

In 2010, the town filed suit looking to label the grounds “seasonal,” and Panetta agreed to a settlement, filed in Merrimack County Superior Court, three years ago.

It reads, in part, “The parties agree that the campground owned by Raymond Panetta may not be used for permanent year-round residency, or for the purpose of establishing a residency.”

But on that sunny day last Thursday, I met people who have lived there fulltime for years, watching their kids climb into a school van, walking their dogs, living their lives.

It doesn’t matter.

“Paying taxes does not make it legal for the camper to be occupied year round,” board of selectmen Chairman Kris Blomback wrote in an email to the Monitor. “They can be occupied during the summer season or the winter season, but not both.”

So why is Panetta’s place open? Why don’t the police do something?

First, Panetta says he has every right to remain open. It’s not his role to enforce the law. He needs the money and he’s giving homes to people who might otherwise be homeless.

“I could close for a week and then I would not be open year-round, but why should I do that to these people just to satisfy some idiot in town?” Panetta said. “It’s up to the town to kick them out and make them homeless.”

Ryan Murdough, chief of the Henniker police, says he hasn’t taken action because he’s not clear on the camp’s status. He calls it a gray area.

“It seems every time I ask that question, I get a different answer,” Murdough said. “Even the previous chief took on that battle and it went nowhere.”

The issue of the campground and its residents resurfaced recently through an email to the Monitor from Jon Evans, a former architect who says the injustice he perceives has been happening for years.

In his email, Evans wrote, “Those families are among those in town most in need of help yet are and have been routinely denied any form of assistance by the director of human services at the direction of the select board.

“The routine and arbitrary denial of assistance to certain residents because of where or how they live is a clear violation of the law.”

Evans contacted John Tobin, director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, who says he’s willing to represent anyone at the campground.

“If they live there and they have urgent basic needs for food or rent or utilities or medicine that they cannot afford, they should be deemed eligible by the town,” Tobin said. “And if the town says we’re not helping anyone in this neighborhood or this campground, I don’t think that would stand up.”

Town Administrator Tom Yennerell said rules have been followed.

“The only thing I have to say is the people have been treated the same there as anywhere else,” Yennerell said. “Beyond that, I have no comment.”

Blomback wrote in an email to the Monitor that people living at Birch have not followed proper procedures when applying for help. He says the town is a last resort only, adding that Henniker recently voted to increase staff in its Human Services Department to help people navigate the system.

“The town occasionally hears complaints from people stating that they have been denied assistance when in fact they did not qualify for assistance,” Blomback’s email read. “If state, private or federal programs have not been applied (to) first, the person will be requested to make those applications first and that many times is misinterpreted as a denial, when in fact it is not a denial.”

But it is confusing.

Charlie Eggers, 61, is jaded these days. He turned some machinery bolts last Thursday, part of a community thrilled to be outside after so many cold days.

He wore a long silver beard, streamlined with a clip midway down so it looked like a ponytail. He says he’s been living on the grounds for 12 years. He’s a retired log scaler who collects unemployment.

Like others, Eggers relies on the local food pantry for help, but says he no longer looks to the town for support.

“If people here go to get help from them, they’ve been denied,” Eggers said. “I don’t even try anymore.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Legacy Comments1

This place is a SEASONAL campground. These are not year-round homes and this place is not set up for that. There have been numerous problems with drug sales going on here--hardly the "family oriented" community that Mr. Duckler writes about. Laws should be enforced; these people should not be there year round and they should be helped to find appropriate services. I'm sure Mr. Duckler is trying to show another side to this unfortunate situation, but it sounds pretty one-sided. The town--and its residents--are being put in a difficult situation because this "campground" is not being used properly and it has become a scary situation for everyone involved, including town residents.

Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.