Continuing Courtship

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By Susan Morse

Hampton Union, Friday, January 20, 2006

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

SEABROOK -- The town has the district courthouse temporarily within its borders and wants to keep it that way.

Town officials are pro-actively offering the state a sweet financial deal to locate the Hampton District Court, or a combined Hampton-Exeter District Court, permanently in Seabrook, on land donated by the town.

In March, voters are expected to approve an $8 million bond article that will cost them nothing. The warrant allows the state to access $8 million in funding right away to construct a new court facility. Seabrook selectmen are also offering the state free land - which has town sewer and water - on Route 107, which is, they point out, conveniently located to Interstate 95.

Seabrook will have to do all it can to make the town an attractive alternative. Town Manager Fred Welch admits no one but Seabrook wants the courthouse in Seabrook.

The state may want to build a combined courthouse somewhere along Route 101, between Hampton and Exeter, and perhaps build a separate ramp access from the highway, Welch said.

Hampton officials believe the site of the former district court on Winnacunnet Road is the ideal location. They've offered that land for free.

Exeter appears to be waiting to hear alternatives to its current commute to Brentwood, where the Exeter District Court is temporarily housed within the Rockingham Superior Court building.

"No one has approached the town at this point with any options regarding a specific site and an option for Exeter," said Town Manager Russell Dean.

A committee is expected to form this month, charged with finding an ideal location for a combined district court and how to fund it. Members are to include selectmen or town managers from the 14 towns covered by Hampton and Exeter district courts, and state officials from those towns.

State Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-Exeter, is one of those involved in forming the committee. She hopes members will meet for the first time by month's end.

"There have been a number of suggestions (for a site), in meeting with the chief justice and Commissioner (Donald) Hill," Hassan said on Thursday. "Hampton has indicted it has a site where its current courthouse is. Certainly people have talked about the desirability off of 101. Hampton and Exeter are the two biggest users of the court."

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

The concern about a Seabrook location is that towns west of Exeter that use the court would find it a relatively long drive, Hassan said.

"That's rumor and buzz and what people say informally to each other," she said. "The state wants to make sure all voices are brought to this committee process. I think it's appropriate for towns to be nudging us a bit."

Saving money is a motivation for towns to have the courthouse close by. There's less money to be paid in overtime and less road time if police and prosecutors have less of a commute.

Seabrook Police Chief David Currier told the Budget Committee last week that since Hampton District Court moved temporarily to Ledge Road in Seabrook his officers have been able to be on call, rather than sitting in court all day."I can tell you, it has already saved a tremendous amount of response time," Currier said.

Currier and town officials also see the courthouse attracting other businesses such as lawyer's offices and restaurants to the west side of town, helping the tax base.

Chief Justice John Broderick closed the century-old Hampton District Court earlier this year because of health concerns of mold and flea infestations, 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 this year, also for health reasons. It is sharing space with the Superior Court in Brentwood.

The state urged a new facility combine the Hampton and Exeter district courts.

[Exeter reporter Adam Dolge contributed to this story.]

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