Hampton, NHDOT Sidewalk Squabble Complicates Beach Revitalization

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Town's Voters Asked to Weigh In

By Patrick Cronin

Hampton Union, Tuesday, February 14, 2012

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

Is it the state's job or the town's job to fix the sidewalk?
[Rachel Halie photo]

HAMPTON -- Former selectman Vic Lessard said when the town gave the state Hampton Beach and Ocean Boulevard nearly half a century ago, there was always a question in the minds of some in town about whether the state would ever renege on its end of the bargain.

"That is what they are doing," Lessard said.

Selectmen and the state Department of Transportation have butted heads in recent months over whose responsible for maintaining sidewalks on Ocean Boulevard. Town officials believe it's the state's responsibility because the town transferred ownership of the beach and highway to the state in 1933. DOT Commissioner Chris Clement said the state's position is that it doesn't maintain sidewalks, even if the property is owned by the state.

The fight is complicating the long-term revitalization of the Hampton Beach even after the state's investment in rebuilding the centerpiece Seashell Complex.

The dispute led selectmen to put forth an advisory warrant article asking voters at the March 13 election if they want the town to assume the responsibility by entering into an agreement with the state. The article was amended at the Feb. 4 annual town deliberative session at the request of John Nyhan, chairman of the Hampton Beach Area Commission.

Nyhan said he amended the article to narrow the focus by asking voters to see if the town should enter an agreement with the state to assume maintenance of the sidewalks between Haverhill and Ashworth Avenues. The caveat, he said, would be the state would have to construct or reconstruct those sidewalks at its expense or through federal money.

"I think the original article was misleading because we are not talking about all of Route 1A," Nyhan said.

But Town Manager Fred Welch said it's still a bad deal for Hampton. "We are talking about perpetuity," Welch said. "Forever is a long time. The state has so far not offered us any money. They have offered to help us find money. That's not a grant of cash."

Welch said accepting maintenance of that stretch of sidewalk could be precedent for the entire length of Ocean Boulevard or Route 1A.

The disagreement over who is responsible for maintaining sidewalks on Ocean Boulevard began last May. The DOT put a temporary sidewalk in front of the new Mrs. Mitchell's Gift Shop, which was rebuilt after the A Block Fire in 2010, and agreed to install a permanent one in the summer with the caveat that the town maintain it in the future.

Since the town balked at assuming the responsibility, the DOT has walked away from doing any permanent repairs on the A Block, according to the Bill Watson, administrator of the DOT's Bureau of Planning and Community Assistance.

The town maintains it's the state's responsibility because the town deeded the property between the highway and the ocean, from the then Coast Guard station to Haverhill Avenue, except Boar's Head. The town transferred the property so the state could deal with erosion problems especially after a 1933 storm that flooded the beach area with three feet of water on the boulevard.

Once the land was transferred, it was agreed by both sides it would "forever" be kept for park and recreational purposes and no commercial concessions would be permitted, except that the town would be allowed to maintain buildings for the Chamber of Commerce, bandstand and other buildings for public use and convenience. It also said the town could build sidewalks with approval of the governor and Executive Council.

Welch said no request to construct sidewalks has been made by the town and added the question comes down to whether residents want to pay for something on someone else's property. Welch said if the town were to enter into an agreement it would switch all the liability from the state to the town. But, he said, there is more too it than just sidewalks.

"The state has told us they will not do crosswalks and that is now the town's responsibility," Welch said. "And they want crosswalk lights at every crosswalk."

Public Works Director Keith Noyes also cautioned voters about approving the article even though it's advisory. "I'm not even a taxpayer in this town, and I would think twice about it," he said, adding it would be a costly proposition.

"If we take over the sidewalks down there, it's going to increase our man power needs," he said. "We are stressed right now trying to maintain what we have now. I'm trying to utilize the resources we have now to adequately take care of the infrastructure that we have. Taking on this would be a huge burden."

But the state's request of the town is nothing new. The state in 2008 asked Seabrook to assume maintenance of a new sidewalk for the Kohl's development on Route 1. Seabrook selectmen ended up signing the state agreement, with the caveat that it set no precedent.

"This is not just something they are forcing on the town of Hampton," Nyhan said.

Nyhan said he supports Hampton's advisory warrant article because it's important to have a good working relationship between the town and the state. "The state would still be responsible for reconstructing and constructing sidewalks," he said. "The only thing is the town will maintain them and do minor repairs as needed."

The DOT, he said, has been a godsend in aiding the Hampton Beach Area Commission in searching for federal grants to continue the revitalization of Hampton Beach.

Watson previously said his department has been frustrated because it has tried to answer all of the town's concerns, even getting an opinion from the N.H. attorney general's office, which stated the town could legally maintain the sidewalk. The town initially agreed to consider maintaining the sidewalks if they received a legal opinion.

Welch said he understands the state's position.

"The state's general policy is they will not construct sidewalks and maintain them because they believe it's a town responsibility," he said. "But in Hampton Beach, it's different because the town deeded under the Legislature in 1933 the ownership of that property, including the beach, on the basis that it maintains it in perpetuity."

But Welch said the town is not opposed to coming to some type of agreement. "I think we do need to sit and talk about it because there may be some middle ground that we can get to," he said.

Former selectmen Art Moody said he's not surprised the state is backing down from its responsibilities.

"They agreed to no concessions but we can see they violated that," said Moody, who noted there is now a store in the new Seashell Complex.

Lessard said voters would be more than happy to maintain the sidewalks — under one condition. "If they want us to take over the sidewalks at Hampton Beach," he said, "they should sign over the whole beach back to us and we will take care of it. That's the only way."

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