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A quiet political maneuver, an immediate ban, and a new effort to allow motorcycle riding on a frozen Concord pond

  • Jake Strong of Concord pulls a wheelie on his motorcycle as he heads out to the small oval at Hoit Road Marsh in Concord on Saturday, February 3, 2018. A group of motorcycle enthusiasts gather on Saturdays to race each other on the frozen marsh. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Motorcyclists drive on tracks plowed by snow plows on Hoit Road Marsh in Concord on Feb. 3, 2018.

  • Jeff Strong of Concord rides on a short oval track at the Hoit Road Marsh in Concord on Feb. 3, 2018. Monitor file photographs

  • Thomas Hopper and his wife have lived down the road from the marsh, a shallow, broad body of water that freezes quickly and boasts walking trails and viewing points. Monitor file

  • John Messick of Loudon testifies about the Hoit Road Marsh on Feb. 12, 2020.

Monitor staff
Published: 2/13/2021 1:34:20 PM

James Stever enjoyed something new last winter: peace and quiet.

The Concord resident, whose house resides a half-mile from Hoit Road Marsh, says the pond next to his property is no longer riddled with noise.

“This year, it has been a pleasure to go outside and enjoy the quiet winter day,” he said at a hearing Wednesday. “To see the skaters and the ice fishermen safely returning to enjoy the marsh as it was meant to be used.”

The cause for that quiet has quickly become one of the State House’s most controversial – and most hyperlocal – legislative battles. Two years ago, the Legislature barred off-road vehicles from Concord’s Hoit Road Marsh without holding any hearings or taking any testimony. The winter ban on a state-controlled body of water affected only Hoit Road Marsh.

Now, ice motorcyclists are clamoring and organizing to overturn the prohibition that targeted them directly.

Stever is less than pleased.

“Like a scourge, HB 571 has been proposed to destroy the peaceful enjoyment of my property and that of my good neighbors once again,” Stever told the House Recreation Committee.

He’s not alone. Several other neighbors, including the city of Concord’s Economic Development Director Suzi Pegg, who moved to the area in 2017, testified in favor of keeping the ban.

“My concern is if the ban is lifted, we’re all working from home in some way shape or form right now because of COVID, and I don’t know how long that’s going to continue,” Pegg said. “So whether you’re schooling children or you’re having to work from home, if that kind of noise goes on, I won’t be able to work from home. It will be Mission Impossible.”

For years, motorcycle enthusiasts had come to the shallow pond when the water was frozen, plowed a track on the ice, and used it for ice riding. But complaints by neighbors over noise levels in late 2018 caused city officials to ask Concord’s most powerful Democrat in the state Senate to slip a provision banning the practice into the 2019 budget agreement.

Since the fall of 2019, no off road vehicles, from snowmobiles to motorized trail bikes, have been allowed on the pond.

With a newly-Republican Legislature in Concord, ice riders are hoping for a reversal.

“I’ve been using the marsh since I was a young child,” said Michael Timmins, of Loudon. “I’ve been there before there was ice fishing and recreating on the pond. I think that one of my main concerns here is that we weren’t given any consideration to the opposition when this legislation was put in place in the inappropriate manner that it was.”

Timmins said that he and other riders had attempted to meet with residents, that the activity was not as frequent as had been alleged, and that the riders had made accommodations over the years to keep the noise down.

Timmins said the reason winter motorcyclists choose ponds like Hoit Road’s is because they are banned from most snowmobile trails.

Exactly when ice riding began on Hoit Road Marsh is up for debate. Some riders say it’s been a decades-long practice. The dam-formed pond is popular due to its shallow depth, which causes it to freeze early, making riding safer there than going out on a deep lake that could have dangerous patches of open water. Neighbors say while the activity has dated back years, the noise issue is more recent.

In late 2018, some residents within a 1.5-mile radius of the pond said that large groups of motorcycle riders were arriving at the pond, spending hours in the day on the ice. The sound of the engines would echo off the lake and carry to properties nearby, sometimes through walls during the day, neighbors said, an unending drone that sounded to some like a chainsaw.

Those resident concerns peaked on Christmas Day in 2018, when a group of ice riders chose to use the ponds while others were at homes with families. The frustrations hit a breaking point.

After several residents complained to city officials, the Concord City Council and Mayor Jim Bouley discovered they didn’t have jurisdiction to regulate the behavior. Under New Hampshire state law, all bodies of water larger than 10 acres are under state control, governed by the state’s Fish and Game department and the Marine Patrol of the State Police. Any regulation would have to come from the state level.

In 2019, freshly in control of the State House, some Concord Democrats attempted to move forward on their own. At the request of Bouley, then-Sen. Dan Feltes added a provision to the state budget rider bill, House Bill 4, to ban off road vehicle use on Hoit Road Marsh.

When it passed, the measure took effect immediately. Riders were caught by surprise. Because it was placed into the state budget rider bill, a packed omnibus assortment of unrelated policies, the change bypassed the legislative process and never got its own hearings, like the one held before lawmakers last week. Riders were unaware of the ban until after it took effect. By late 2019, the surprise had turned to anger, and ice riders convinced then-Rep. Jack Flanagan, a Brookline Republican, to propose a compromise bill that would allow ice riding to return under limited hours.

But that bill was swept aside by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, some lawmakers are trying to overturn the ban again – this time without compromise hours.

Neighbors pleaded their case.

“It’s dozens if not hundreds of homeowners who are affected, not one or two people,” said Julie Lane. “It’s like, if you can imagine the sound of 10 or 20 or 40 motorcycles racing for hours on end. It would be six to seven days a week for five months.”

Riders said the way they were being characterized was inaccurate and unfair.

“I’m 50 years old. I go on a Sunday afternoon with my family,” Timmins said. “We’re being portrayed in an unbelievably negative light. I can assure you there is zero racing happening on Hoit Road Marsh. Do we plow an area to ride on? Absolutely, we do.”

As the Hoit Road Marsh debate enters its third year, the battle between New Hampshire pond and lake residents and winter vehicle enthusiasts is broadening.

Residents at the Turee Pond in Bow are expressing concern with snowmobilers and ice riders on that pond as well. And this year, they’re pressing for a different approach to address it: local control.

A bill by Rep. Mary Beth-Walz, a Bow Democrat, would allow local municipalities to regulate the use of frozen bodies of water of up to 100 acres by off-road vehicles, allowing towns and cities to impose hours and limitations – or even outright bans – on the lakes and ponds.

Sandra Crystall, a Bow resident living within walking distance from Turee pond, said at a hearing Wednesday that the motor vehicle activity had increased since around 2018 – and had encroached on her enjoyment.

“In the winter of 2018 to 2019, Turee Pond became a location of motor bike racing activities,” she said. “This created a loud, and to some obtrusive, situation on numerous weekend days. This disturbed the enjoyable nature of the typical quiet winter activities on the pond.”

But that bill, HB 534, has been broadly opposed by stakeholders, from the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association to the New Hampshire State Police to the New Hampshire Fish and Game department, who argued Wednesday that it would create a patchwork system of regulations and hurt the state’s growing motor vehicle tourism industry.

“These are public places for all people to recreate,” said Captain Michael Eastman of New Hampshire Fish and Game. “The concerns that we have is that it would create confusion to the public, to have different laws and ordinances from town to town in those bodies of water.”

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

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