By Michael Sharkey, Staff Writer
Herald Sunday, March 26, 2000
[The following article is courtesy of the Herald Sunday and Seacoast Online.]
HAMPTON -- Released from an ancient lease agreement, and with funding for a master plan on the table, officials say the future of Hampton Beach is getting brighter all the time.
In 1897 voters approved a warrant article to lease the town-owned sand dunes on the beach to the fledgling Hampton Beach Improvement Co., according to Peter Randall's "Hampton, a Century of Town and Beach. -- 1888 - 1988"
The HBIC was made up of local families, predominantly the Batchelders and the Hobbs, who saw great potential in developing the sand dunes of the beach into a tourist attraction. Under the lease agreement, the town received $500 a year in rent, but could not tax the land from Island Path to Hampton Harbor. At the time the deal seemed a good one for the town, as $500 provided a significant tax rebate for residents in 1897. Further, the beach would be developed without any cost to the taxpayers.
However, as the beach was developed, and turned into a major tourist attraction, the town discovered it didn't get such a great deal after all. Hampton's frustration at not being able to tax the valuable property became evident through a number of law suits filed to break the contract over the years none of which were successful.
Tom Higgins, beach precinct commissioner, said beach business owners were also frustrated with the HBIC agreement. Rent to the HBIC was expensive, resulting in less money being spent on property repairs.
"The deal really provided no benefits to the town, I think," Higgins said. "All the town ever got was some sidewalks and side streets."
But in 1997 the town breathed a 99-year sigh of relief when the lease agreement expired. Hampton Assessor Bob Estey said the town saw immediate benefits in being able to tax the land at full value. Substantial revenue was created, with the town tax rate being lowered by an estimated 10 to 15 cents per $1,000 valuation.
Higgins said beach business owners saw benefits by not having to pay such expensive rents. The result has been a larger investment in the properties. Banks had previously been reluctant to get involved with the leased land, but are now more willing to make home equity loans, he said.
While the changes have been relatively unseen, Town Manager James Barrington said a big transformation of the beach could be on the horizon.
At this year's Town Meeting, voters approved a $50,000 request for a master development plan of Hampton Beach. The state and the federal government have also contributed, resulting in a total of $150,000 earmarked for the plan.
The master plan will study land use, zoning, infrastructure needs, transportation, traffic, parking, utilities, drainage, safety issues and public facilities for both the state- and town-owned and managed areas.
Barrington said the town has an opportunity through the master plan, and with the end of the 99-year lease, to make Hampton Beach into whatever it wants.
"We are now in the same unique position the HBIC was 100 years ago," Barrington said. "I think it's an extremely exciting opportunity for the town."
Real changes on the beach could be achieved through the master plan, officials say. When the June 16 fire on Ocean Boulevard destroyed three buildings, including the landmark Old Salt restaurant, officials banded together. A joint group of the selectmen, Planning Board and Zoning Board determined zoning laws should be changed to allow the Old Salt and Springfield Motor Lodge to create larger, more modern facilities. Those new buildings would be the seed to transform the beach, they speculated.
The joint board sent recommendations, including changing the height restrictions from 50 to 100 feet, to the Planning Board to be drafted into a document. However, the Planning Board discovered the proposed changes in the law to provide larger buildings could potentially create even more problems for the beach.
The larger structures would draw more people, and further tax the town's infrastructure, the Planning Board determined. What was needed was a comprehensive study of the beach to determine if such zoning changes were appropriate, they decided.
Planning Board member Peter Olney voiced his support for the master plan in a recent letter to Seacoast Newspapers.
"The end of the 99-year HBIC lease has provided the beach with a fresh opportunity to chart a new course that has not been available for the past century. If we drift into new development trends through lack of planning, the momentum in whatever direction will be difficult to alter."
The town is now awaiting final word from the federal government on its portion of the master plan fund, Barrington said. Once all funding is received, the process will begin in earnest. Any and all town, beach, and state officials interested in the process will be invited to discuss how the project should proceed, and the master plan ball should get rolling within three months, he said.
"We want to ask, 'Are we going where we want?'" Barrington said. "If we are, then great, but if we're not, what do we have to do to get there?