Bill for combined Exeter, Hampton courthouse killed

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Hassan, Stiles continue push for towns to find suitable site

By Jennifer Feals

The Exeter News-Letter, February 1, 2008

[The following article is courtesy of The Exeter News-Letter and Seacoast Online.]

EXETER — The state Public Works and Highway Committee killed a bill Tuesday that could have used the $7 million appropriation, slated for the Merrimack district courthouse, to build the Hampton/Exeter district courthouse.

HB 1438, sponsored by Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-Exeter, and Rep. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, was introduced Jan. 2.

Under legislation passed about five years ago, aiming to unify courts throughout New Hampshire, the state will pay for a unified district court if the towns involved can find property. Only one courthouse is to be built at a time, and those municipalities that identify appropriate locations are given priority. The Exeter/Hampton district's competitor in the state, Merrimack, found its property first.

Merrimack has since been involved in a dispute with the state over the exact arrangement of the purchase of the land, Hassan and Stiles said.

"When that happened, senators and representatives said if Merrimack can't use the $7 million, we'll take it," Hassan told the Exeter Board of Selectmen Monday. "The bill got a warm reception because we don't have the land yet. There is a hesitance to take money away from Merrimack without us saying we've got land ready to go."

The Public Works and Highway Committee moved to kill the bill after it was learned Merrimack decided to move forward with its property, Stiles said.

Hassan told Exeter selectmen there seems to be a willingness for the Exeter/Hampton unified courthouse to move forward if a location is identified and that the district is next on the list. Although the towns under the combined district have identified sites during the past few years — including land in Hampton, Seabrook and Exeter — for one reason or another, each has been struck down.

Stiles and Hassan said they have identified a parcel of land in the Route 27 and Interstate 95 interchange owned by the state Department of Transportation. The DOT plans to use portions of the property, Stiles said, and if it identifies the remaining portion as surplus, Exeter and Hampton could use it for its district courthouse. The parcel is already hooked up to town water and sewer, they said.

"We had a meeting at the Supreme Court with the chief justice and the chiefs of police, long-range planning committee, capital budget committee, public works committee, just about everyone you can imagine there to voice their opinion because we really need to be the next in line," Stiles said. "The department said they would go back and look at the property again and see if they could determine it to be surplus property. I have not got the official answer from them."

Stiles said area police chiefs have been accepting of the location and that it would fit all towns well.

"It took a while for us to get together," she said. "There are 14 communities involved in this combination. That's a lot of people and for them to come together on any site location is a great step forward and they're at that point now. We're just trying to move forward."

Towns that would be served by the court are Hampton, Hampton Falls, North Hampton, South Hampton, Seabrook, Exeter, Newmarket, Stratham, Newfields, Fremont, East Kingston, Kensington, Epping and Brentwood.

In recent years, the Exeter District Court has occupied space in the Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood and Hampton District Court has been located in Seabrook.

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