Hoit Road Marsh vehicle ban to get State House hearing as residents pass around petition

  • Thomas Hopper started plowing the ice skating area on Hoit Road Marsh in 1982. Hopper and his wife lived down the road from the marsh, a shallow, broad body of water that freezes quickly and boasts walking trails and viewing points along its banks. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/8/2020 6:47:51 PM

Thomas Hopper doesn’t have to be told about the decades of ice skating on the Hoit Road Marsh. He’s the one that helped make it happen.

For nearly four decades – 1982 and on – Hopper and his wife have lived across the street from the marsh, a shallow, broad body of water that freezes quickly and boasts walking trails and viewing points.

Winter after winter, Hopper would plow the ice, clearing it for skaters with a tractor he still owns and operates, he said. The marsh quickly bred an ad hoc community, with ice fishing and dog walking, ice skating and snowmobiling.

At least before the motorcycles came, Hopper says.

“This barrage that’s happened recently … the acoustics went right up,” he said.

It was a gradual change, Hopper and other neighbors say: a few motorcycling enthusiasts using the lake as a closed track. But over the years it grew, peaking in its final years to a group of motorcyclists two-or-three-dozen strong out on the ice for hours at a time.

“Cycles had been there before those guys were there,” Hopper said. “But there was only a few, very few, maybe one or two guys, yeah, screwing around in the earlier days. But this is a cluster, an organized group.”

Neighbors complained. State and local lawmakers took action. Now the motorcycles of Hoit Road Marsh have become a Concord-centric lightning rod in the State House.

Last year, without holding a specific hearing, the New Hampshire House and Senate added a ban on vehicular use of the pond to last year’s budget. Now that the ban is in effect, an effort to undo it will get a hearing, with advocates on both sides set to mobilize.

The amendment, which would reverse the ban and which was submitted by Brookline Rep. Jack Flanagan, will be heard by the House Recreation committee at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

Neighbors say they’re ready to fight for the ban to stay.

A petition to “strongly oppose” overturning the ban had picked up 40 signatures from people who live near the pond.

The petition laid out what neighbors say had been a “public nuisance” in the past. “When such activity occurred in the past the noise generated by the activity severely disrupted our use and enjoyment of our property,” the petition reads.

Motorcycling is “very disruptive” to those visiting the marsh for trail walking, ice skating and ice fishing, the document states.

The petition also decries the environmental impact of the vehicles. “The potential for pollution of this protected water body by petroleum hydrocarbons either emitted as exhaust from the motorcycles and settling on the ice, or spills of gasoline or motor oil is a potentially serious environmental problem,” the petition states.

Hopper says he’s seen the effects of that. “Flocks will go up,” he said, speaking of birds. “And they don’t want any of that sound. Wildlife doesn’t want any sound, no matter what it is.”

And he said that with the motorcycle use on the pond, ice skating becomes nearly impossible and those looking to enjoy the pond without vehicles typically stay away. Other residents say the noise penetrates their homes.

But the motorcyclists feel differently. To them, the ban was borne out of a misunderstanding of what they do and why.

Melinda Houle, a Chichester resident who testified in favor of overturning the ban, said that riders always allow for ice skating, often plowing an area for kids and adults to do so within the motorcycle track. And she said the riders take in and take out barrels of trash, and keep an eye on reducing any unruly behavior.

“We’re not a bunch of hooligans,” Houle said. “We’re respectful. We’re about family, we’re about kids.”

Houle and others plan to come out for Wednesday’s hearing, just as they did when the amendment was first presented. Addressing the unhappy residents, Houle says she’s appealing to empathy.

“How would they feel if they wanted to do yoga in a park, or they had grandchildren?” she said. “How would they feel if what they enjoyed doing, someone took that away from them? It’s not about anger. It’s about: We’re not sitting in our houses. We’re outdoors. And the kids are learning bonds.”

Overturning the ban could be an uphill battle. Concord-area politicians and representatives largely support it.

In an interview, Concord Mayor Jim Bouley said he had been approached in late 2018 into 2019 about the noise, hearing from “10-12 homes.” He brought it up to the City Council in early 2019, only to be told that the city did not have authority to regulate water over 10 acres.

That’s when he brought the issue to lawmakers, at the urging of the City Council. The proposal was taken up by Concord Sen. Dan Feltes, a Democrat, who added the ban to the budget trailer bill in May.

Opponents of the ban have taken issue with that process. Because it was added to the budget, and most people on both sides of the issue were unaware of its existence until after it passed – let alone how to speak about it at a hearing.

But Concord’s political leaders have brushed off the concerns.

State Rep. Christy Bartlett, a Concord Democrat who lives down the road, says that she took action at the request of her constituents. The budget process was the only way to move quickly, she said; the normal process wouldn’t have worked by this winter.

“We have to file our bills by the end of September,” she said. “So there’s nothing that we can do in the middle of winter. There’s a schedule.”

Bouley says when he passed on the concerns to lawmakers, he did not know what they would do. But he said he supported the decision.

“I’m not going to second guess the way the Legislature operates,” he said. “I’m going to thank Sen. Feltes for representing the folks in Concord. I've been listening to the folks who have been living with this for several years. I went out and experienced it for myself so I could experience what they were going through and I wouldn’t want to live next to it.”

Still, Feltes, who is running for governor this year, left room to hear from both sides.

“Folks raised a real concern at the end of last session, we did our level best to fix it, and if we didn’t get it right, let’s keep working at it,” he said in a statement.

Wednesday’s hearing will be held at 1 p.m. in Room 305 of the Legislative Office Building in Concord.

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

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