New Court Needs Outlined

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By Susan Morse and Adam Dolge

Hampton Union, Friday, May 19, 2006

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Commissioner Donald Hill of the state Department of Administrative Services has sent letters to towns interested in having a combined Exeter-Hampton District Court built within their borders.

Preference will be given to sites that are donated, served by public transportation, and which have public sewer and water available, Hill wrote in his letter.

None of the 14 towns served by the courts had responded by Thursday afternoon, according to Hill.

All towns have been notified of the meeting, Hill said.

"We're trying to get everybody together so everyone has a chance to participate," Hill said.

Two of the 14 towns served by the courts appear to meet the commissioner's requirements: Hampton and Seabrook.

Exeter Town Manager Russ Dean said the town has been in the process of reviewing a list of town-owned land.

"We've basically come to an initial conclusion that, unfortunately, we can't find a parcel that will fit all three criteria at this time," Dean said. "But it has raised some questions."

Historically, the state has never built a court without being given land or having another state agency turn over land, Dean said.

"Should the state not be looking at the concept of buying a piece of land?" he asked. "Shouldn't they be looking more outside the box in order to serve the central location?"

Dean said the criteria of public water and sewer will limit the search quite a bit.

It leaves out smaller towns, such as Hampton Falls, which cannot offer the public utilities.

North Hampton Town Administrator Mike Pardue said, "At this point, we don't have any land to offer."

Hampton wants the combined court on the site of the former Hampton District Court on Winnacunnet Road. The former Hampton District Court leased the space from the town. Hampton has offered the parcel to the state.

Hampton Town Manager James Barrington said he has not seen Commissioner Hill's letter.

Seabrook is in the process of responding to the letter, which it received on May 2, said Town Manager Fred Welch.

Voters two years ago approved donating land off Route 107 to the state for a courthouse, even though this past year they rejected an article for an $8 million bond to build the court facility. The bond would have been paid by the state and cost taxpayers nothing.

Seabrook Selectman Robert Moore, who was elected in March, said last week he was against the courthouse being built on the Route 107 land since it is near the town wellfields.

"I don't approve of putting any building there, ever," he said.

Voters have already approved the land for court use, said Welch on Thursday.

Seabrook has the Hampton District Court temporarily within its borders and wants to keep it that way.

Having the court within town has saved on police overtime, as officers can be called to court rather than waiting for a case, according to Police Chief David Currier.

Concern has been raised that a Seabrook location would be a long drive for towns west of Exeter, said state Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-Exeter, who has been involved in forming a committee to find a location.

People involved have talked about the desirability of a site off Route 101, between Hampton and Exeter, she said earlier this year. Those two towns are the two biggest users of the court, she said.

The state owns land off Route 101, Hassan said, and private landowners indicated they would be willing to sell their property.

The state has ruled out no site, Hill said on Thursday.

The state wants to combine the former separate Hampton and Exeter district courts.

Chief Justice John Broderick ordered that the century-old Hampton District Courthouse be closed last year because of health concerns, and because the second floor courtroom had no wheelchair access.

The state signed a three-year lease to temporarily house the Hampton District Court in Seabrook.

The Exeter District Court moved out of its downtown location last year, also for health reasons. It is sharing space with the Rockingham Superior Court in Brentwood.

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