Opinion: Bill amendment threatens property rights

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By ANN DAVIS

Published: 05-21-2024 3:59 PM

Ann Davis, a retired journalist, lives in Wilmot. She recently received the Outstanding Industry Advocate Award from the Northeastern Loggers Association.

A troublesome amendment to an New Hampshire House bill is wending its way through the legislative process.

On Tuesday, May 13, the Senate Election Law and Municipal Affairs Committee of the New Hampshire Senate approved a non-germane amendment to House Bill 1215. A non-germane amendment is not relevant to the original bill. In fact, because the New Hampshire House has approved the original version of HB 1215, it will not conduct a second hearing to deliberate the tacked-on amendment.

The New Hampshire Senate will vote on the bill, including the amendment, on Wednesday, May 22.

The most recent issue of the Forest Fax, an email newsletter published by the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association (NHTOA), included information about this proposal. As a timberland owner, I rely on the NHTOA to inform me about issues that relate to owning and managing my property, the Woods Without Gile. This 500-acre certified New Hampshire Tree Farm has more than a mile of frontage on Class VI roads in Springfield and Wilmot. Any issue that relates to roads always grabs my attention.

If it becomes law, the amendment would allow the board of selectmen in Hampton to discontinue a town road without following current law that requires them to bring such matters to town meeting for a vote.

This non-germane amendment, sponsored by Sen. Debra Alschiller, would expedite the development of the Hampton Ballroom Casino. The rationale being promulgated is that discontinuing this road now, without bothering with the time-tested process outlined in New Hampshire’s road laws, would expedite the project, which, by the way, has been in the works for several years.

Why the hurry? Currently, towns have two ways to discontinue a town road: bring the question to voters at a regular town meeting or call a special town meeting. Are selectmen concerned that Hampton voters might not approve this scheme?

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I live in Wilmot, more than 60 miles away from Hampton. Why should I care, or, for that matter, why should you?

Property rights, pure and simple, are at the heart of this issue. Mine, yours, and anyone who owns property on a town road in New Hampshire. If passed, this amendment would set an unfortunate precedent that could affect landowners throughout the state.

If the selectmen in Hampton are allowed to discontinue the road, they intend to lease it to a private entity for 99 years.

Could this proposed extinguishment of abutters’ rights be construed as the use of eminent domain by a town to benefit a private entity?

In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city of New London, Conn., could condemn the Fort Trumbull area by eminent domain and allow a private company to redevelop the property. In that case, the Court stated that the “expected public benefits” justified the use of eminent domain in that case.

In reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, in June 2006, N.H. Gov. John Lynch signed Senate Bill 287 into law. This legislation protects citizens against eminent domain for private profit. The law states: “Public use shall not include the public benefits resulting from private economic development and private commercial enterprise, including increased tax revenues and increased employment opportunities.”

This amendment has other serious flaws. It would codify an alternative means of road closure outside an official town meeting. New Hampshire law is very specific that town residents are the local legislative body empowered to discontinue roads, not the selectmen. This bill cedes local authority to the board of selectmen. A one-off bill for a specific project sets a bad precedent.

Finally, it promotes bad policy. Arguing that this amendment is needed because a private project will create economic activity and tax revenue is specious and dangerous. It is not a legitimate reason to modify the law in a way that would impact private property rights. Though targeted for a road in Hampton, if this non-germane amendment becomes law, it could be employed across the state for private projects.

Contact your New Hampshire senator today and ask them to vote ‘no’ on the non-germane Hampton road amendment and remove it from HB 1215.