Hoit Road Marsh enthusiasts push to overturn rare winter motorcycle ban tucked into state budget 

  • Advocates for winter motorcycling show up at the Legislative Office Building to urge lawmakers to reverse a recent ban on off-road winter vehicles on Hoit Road Marsh, Jan 29, 2020. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

  • Jeff Strong of Concord competes against friends on a short oval at the Hoit Road Marsh in Concord on Saturday, February 3, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Jeff Strong of Concord competes against friends on a short oval at the Hoit Road Marsh in Concord on Saturday, February 3, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Motorcyclists drive on tracks plowed by snow plows on Hoit Road Marsh in Concord on Saturday, February 3, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Special spiked wheels allow motorcycles to drive on the ice of Hoit Road Marsh in Concord on Saturday, February 3, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 1/29/2020 6:38:00 PM

For two years, Jeremy Pegg had endured something he said was “horrendous.”

Weekend after weekend, motorcyclists would show up to ride around the frozen pond near his Concord home. The noisy tradition pierced the walls of the house Jeremy and Suzi Pegg purchased in the summer of 2017. In May 2017, Suzi Pegg had been hired to be the city’s new economic development director.

Two years later, the mayor and a few Concord lawmakers got involved and suddenly the noise stopped.

The Legislature quietly intervened, banning the activity in that specific pond in an unusual addition to the budget last year.

“This is the first winter we’ve had without them. And it has been an absolute delight,” Jeremy Pegg said in an interview Wednesday. “The peace and quiet. That’s why we moved to this spot.”

Less delighted: the motorcyclists themselves.

After decades of using the frozen-over Hoit Road Marsh pond in winter as a motorcycle track, the new prohibition by the Legislature has stirred up heated opinions, dividing visitors to the pond and residents.

Lawmakers passed the prohibition of off-highway recreational vehicles on the pond last September by tucking it into a trailer bill to the $13 billion state budget. Since then, the weekly activity has disappeared.

Motorcyclists say the ban – the first of its kind over a pond in state statute – was hastily passed and has stamped out a cherished community tradition unique to the pond.

On Wednesday, a group of enthusiasts took to a hearing in the State House to urge representatives to reverse course.

“Nowadays, kids just stay home and play video games,” said Melinda Houle of Chichester. On the pond, she said, “they’re forming bonds and education and learning about relationships ... We’re just there to enjoy New Hampshire wildlife.”

An amendment to an existing bill by Rep. Jack Flanagan would achieve that reversal, with limitations.

Flanagan’s proposal, amended to House Bill 1316, would re-open the pond for vehicular use for certain days of the week – Monday, Thursday and Saturday – between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

It would also prohibit events without approval from the state Fish and Game Department, and impose a 55 mile per hour speed limit on the pond, Flanagan said.

The proposal is a compromise, Flanagan said.

“I sat down with Fish and Game and tried to think of an amicable way to resolve it where everyone’s equally unhappy,” he quipped.

“Right now, the homeowners are happy because they’ve convinced the politicians to make it illegal,” he added. “Well that’s sort of hard to hear when you’ve been out there for 40 years.”

Flanagan is not from Concord; the Republican hails from Brookline, in the south. But he says he was approached by the Merrimack Valley Trail Riders, a Concord-based off-road vehicle group, to put forward the legislation based on a history of supporting off-road vehicle bills.

And on Wednesday, a group of the bikers who had used the pond said they supported it too.

For years, going back to at least to the 1980s, motorcyclists have used the pond. They plow two tracks, one for adults and a separate one for children – each a ring with twists and turns. Often they’ll clear out additional space for a skating rink.

Some said they had grown up with the pond, and were recently bringing their own kids.

On the ice, Houle is known as the “lunch lady.” She turns up with food and hot chocolate, ready for the riders and their families.

For Houle, the draw of the pond is the camaraderie, not just the activity itself.

“We have family and friends and communities that go out on the ice,” she said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. “It’s not just about driving motorcycles.”

Adults came before the House Recreation committee throughout the morning Wednesday, many with children. Some of them brought hand drawings of the course.

Lorant Ronai, of Newmarket, showed up with his daughter and son, Lillian and Lorant Jr. While there are some ponds in the state that do similar things, Hoit Road Marsh is special, Ronai said.

“It’s like going to Fenway Park and then having to go to another baseball stadium,” he said.

Under state law, ponds larger than 10 acres are designated as “great ponds” and are open to the public. Some water bodies in the state have winter speed limits for off-road vehicles but not complete bans.

“It’s pretty unusual. Off the top of my head I don’t know of any other water bodies that are shut off to OHRV’s during wintertime,” said Sgt. Geoff Bushee of Fish and Game’s law enforcement division told the Monitor in October, when news of the new ban began to spread.

The process to impose the ban is far different than the effort to reverse it. That’s because the ban was not passed through the standard legislative process; rather, it was added to one of the budget bills during summer negotiations. 

That means it received no public hearings, little scrutiny and scant input from Concord-based lawmakers. Now, the ban can only be reversed by the Legislature.

Motorcyclists say they’ve attempted to reach out to local lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, the Concord Democrat who added the provision to the budget.

But with the attempted reversal attached to an amendment to a bigger bill, some local representatives have equivocated.

House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook representative, declined to comment Wednesday, citing unfamiliarity with the issue.

And a representative for Feltes said the senator is monitoring the proposed amendment to reverse that move.

“Sen. Feltes will review whatever comes to the Senate and is open to a reasonable resolution,” said Sara Persechino, policy and communications director for the Senate.

Feltes had added in the provision at the request of Mayor Jim Bouley, Bouley told the Monitor in October. At the time Bouley said that the request had been prompted by a complaint about vehicles on Christmas day, the final straw for some residents.

In Concord, fewer than 10 houses abut the state-owned land around the pond. 

Flanagan said he would continue to push the amendment, even if the bill it is presently attached to, which would extend ATV trails in the North Country, falls in the House.

But Pegg said he’s happy where things are now. Pegg works from home, and when he and his wife moved to Concord from Pittsburgh, they were looking for something rural.

But for two years the noise, which they had not been warned of by the real estate agent, had penetrated their house even into the basement, over the television. Despite the disturbance, he and his wife never complained, he said.

“It’s a great pleasure at the moment,” he said, mentioning the walking trails around the pond. “It’s really nice to go around on the weekend.”

Editor’s note: When reaching out to Mayor Jim Bouley, the Monitor sent a text message to the wrong phone number. 

Ethan De Witt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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