Court Loses Place On Priority List

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Towns Served By Facility Need Resolution On a Site

By Juli Rothstein

Herald Sunday, Sunday, April 8, 2007

[The following article is courtesy of the Herald Sunday and Seacoast Online.]

A new Hampton-Exeter District Courthouse being built before 2010 seems unlikely unless the 14 towns that make up the district can come up with a location that is both appropriate and central.

"We've been working with folks down there for a couple of years and haven't been able to come up with a site we can settle on, and that's really the holdup," said Don Hill, commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, which is in charge of building state courts. "If they want a new facility, it really takes the municipal ties to get together."

Discussions about the project have peen ongoing for several years, and for the past couple of years the staffs of the two former courts have been in temporary quarters.

According to Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-Exeter, the Legislature has decided that only one courthouse will be built at a time and those municipalities that identify appropriate locations will be given priority.

Currently, the combined Hampton-Exeter court sits at number six on the list of Judicial Branch Facilities Needs for major construction projects. And in a state where many departments and services are vying for limited amounts of funding, only a few projects at a time are feasible.

Although the 14 towns under the combined district court have identified a few sites during the Past few years, for one reason or another, each has been struck down.

The 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.

Reaching consensus

Hill's department is in charge of providing and maintaining suitable facilities for all courts within each judicial district and county. He said his department and the Bureau of Court Facilities will once again head out to work with the towns to locate an appropriate site.

"I think the most difficult concern down there right now is to get consensus among all the municipalities," Hill said. "We can only advise them if they really want to get their new courthouse; they have to get together."

The commissioner said a few years ago, the court was near the top of the list for courthouse projects, but once the Exeter District Court was moved to Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood and Hampton District Court was moved to a location in Seabrook, other courts with more pressing needs rose to the top.

"I think we put them in facilities that are working so well that the Bureau of Court Facilities said there's not much of an urgent need," Hill explained. "Right now, the Legislature is working on the 2008-2009 budget, and because there is not a site that's been identified that fits everybody's desire, I would say the earliest (the court-house can expect to see funding) is 2010."

Hill said the only likely way for the Hampton-Exeter Courthouse to move up on the list for funding is if towns quickly identify an appropriate site and if one of the courts higher on the priority list is unable to locate a land parcel.

The decision to combine the district courts, established by the Legislature in 2004, took effect July 1, 2006.

When the court was formed, towns were asked to come to a consensus on a location, and also donate land for the new building. Donating land, according to state officials, has been the precedent for all new courthouses built in New Hampshire over the years.

Hill sent a letter to towns in 2006 that established three requirements the state would like to see met for a court-house site. That letter stated preference would be given to sites that are donated, served by public transportation and have water and sewer available.

Hill said he sent the letter out prior to meeting with the towns so it would be easier for the municipalities to know what the state was looking for in a site that would be suitable for a courthouse.

Sites considered

In June 2006, Hampton offered a three-acre parcel of town-owned land, which was located off Route 101. Seabrook also offered land that met the three requirements. Neither was considered viable to the state.

According to Fred Welch, the former town manager of Seabrook who recently took on the same position in Hampton, the offer for Seabrook's parcel still stands, but the state has never executed the deal.

But Hill said the site would have to make sense for every-one. "You really have to look for a site that is accessible by all the districts and not at one extreme end of the districts," he explained.

According to Town Manager Russ Dean, Exeter did not have any land that met the state requirements.

Leasing Seacoast Media Group's former building in Stratham was taken into consideration, but that site ended up on the chopping block as well. Typically, according to Hill, if the state were to lease a building, it would pay between $10 and $12 a square foot, but the asking price by the developer who bought the building was higher than that.

Hill said many people agreed that the location would be preferable, but it was cost-prohibitive.

The site that rose to the top was a land parcel on routes, 101 and 85 in Exeter.

State Sen. Martha Fuller Clark had introduced a bill to the Senate Capital Budget Committee this year that sought to make a capital appropriation of $200,000 to fund acquisition of land for the court. The bill identified the Exeter location, which is owned by the Department of Transportation, as the parcel to purchase.

But after a group of residents banded together to protest the location of the court on that site, which is near the edge of a residential neighborhood, Hassan introduced an amendment to strike the site, but still appropriate the funding. That amendment passed, but the committee voted the bill down, and once it hit the Senate floor, it was voted inexpedient to legislate.

Claudia Moore, who organized the group of residents, said she was pleased to see the democratic process work for her and her neighbors, but realizes the need for a viable site on which to locate the courthouse.

"This exercise, has shown us how very important it is to be informed and be part in our local government," she said. "The need for the court-house is not going to go away. The important thing now is for us to get with people from other communities and find a location that is very advantageous to everyone."

Legislature awaits location

When the bill reached the Senate floor March 22, no debate took place, but Senate Finance Chairman Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, made a statement prior to the vote.

"It's my understanding that the two towns in question have yet to come up with an appropriate parcel of land," he said. "It would be more appropriate to deal with this during the capital budget process."

Only three senators voted to keep the bill alive -- Fuller Clark, Hassan and Iris Estabrook.

On Thursday, Hassan said the capital budget has come over from the House without funding the Hampton-Exeter District Court.

"That's in part because, or really mostly because, there is no location identified for it yet, while the Merrimack District Court, which also is in desperate need, does have a location," she explained. "There was a decision that only one courthouse would be built at a time and because Merrimack already had a location, they felt it was appropriate to focus on that courthouse in the capital budget.

Hassan also lobbed the ball back at the municipalities for a solution, saying, "I think the towns need to continue their efforts to figure out where they want to put this and how they are going to do that, and then I'll think they'll find a receptive Legislature in terms of funding the actual courthouse project."

Both Hassan and Dean have made a case to the Legislature that tried to show the difference in land values and abundance along the Seacoast.

Dean said it might be easier for communities in different areas of the state, where land is more plentiful and less expensive, to come up with appropriate land parcels to donate, but the Seacoast is different.

"Larger parcels of land are particularly expensive in our area and it's also increasingly scarce," Hassan said. She added that although the state might know that to be true, it does not want to depart from precedent.

Hill even acknowledged that the state precedent for land donations may not work here on the Seacoast.

Dean said he would be "all ears" to any residents willing to donate land for the project.

"At this point, every idea we can think of should be on the table," he said. Welch put forth a reminder that any resident who might consider donating land would receive a considerable tax write-off from the federal government.

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