The Public Beach Lands

Chapter 8 -- Part 1

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Protecting and selling a town treasure

From the earliest days of settlement, most of Hampton Beach has been owned by the Town. Early residents adopted articles at town meetings to control the use of the area, regulating the collection of seaweed, which was used as fertilizer, the cutting of marsh hay, and the use of the land as livestock pasture. With limited fresh water for drinking and only rough wagon paths, the Beach area was not considered to be a good place for settlement for many years. As related elsewhere, a few people eventually built houses at the shore in the early years of the nineteenth century, but, even as late as 1897, the area we now know as the main beach was called a wasteland. Nevertheless, long-time residents were concerned about various attempts by individuals to intrude on the publicly owned land. In his history, Joseph Dow relates at some length the measures taken by the Town, as late as the 1870s, to reaffirm its ownership of certain sections of the Beach.

A correspondent, writing in a June 1874 Portsmouth newspaper, commented, "The beach seemed to be held by the ancients for the benefit of the public ..... Recently the Town had ceased to exercise its authority and control and has allowed numerous 'squatters' to erect and open buildings of all descriptions and for all kinds of purposes which in the end, if not checked soon, will tell much against the town and peace and be ruinous to the five or six hotels located at that beautiful retreat where now numerous persons go in the hot summer months for health, pleasure and comfort."

This situation continued until October 1878, when the town meeting voted to authorize the selectmen to remove some 53 "well-built" houses constructed on sites that it was believed belonged to the Town. A February 1879 editorial in the Haverhill Bulletin questioned the Hampton vote:

"..... We fail to see why she [Hampton] should object to people making her seashore a place of retreat during the summer months. A town usually courts immigration, and most communities invite others to come and settle in their midst. But Hampton would drive people out of town. They seem to prefer that the citizens of Haverhill go elsewhere to spend the summer months. Their wishes doubtless will be gratified and the course they are taking will induce people to go to other resorts, and Hampton Beach will become what seems to be so much desired -- "a howling wilderness."

As agent for the Town in the suits against beach squatters, Uri Lamprey responded to the "attack" from the Haverhill Bulletin,

There is no truth to the assertion that Hampton is opposed to people coming to the beach; neither by vote has the town shown any such disposition. The town claims to own all of the territory known as the beach, and all records in relation to the same go on to prove or substantiate the claim of the town to the beach; the town has full police control over it, subject only to the laws of the State and those of custom. All the town is trying to do is to have the question of ownership settled by the court. There is no disposition to drive people away, as long as they behave well.

The regular 1879 town meeting refused to annul the previous vote and the cases were pursued through the courts for years until the Town was successful in its claim to the Beach, primarily that area on the shore from the North Hampton town line to Winnacunnet Road and from the corner of Ocean Boulevard and Ashworth Avenue to the river. General Gilman Marston, an Exeter attorney, first represented the Town. After his death, Edward G. Eastman pursued the matter in court for another decade. In 1888, the [Exeter] News-Letter said that "The handsome French roof cottage of Mr. Scott ... has been sold and is being moved from our beautiful South Beach to Hampton Falls" as a consequence of a state Supreme Court decision against the squatters. By June 1894, the matter must have been finally resolved, because the News-Letter reported that "Squatters at the lower end of the beach are quite generally moving to land purchased of Mr. Oliver Nudd [the vicinity of today's Nudd Avenue]. Eight buildings have been moved since fall. To a few of the squatting cottagers the town has leased their holdings." In that year, Laura Bradley, William P. Tucker, and George M. Cook paid a total of $35 for "rent of land at beach," according to the town report. This is the first mention of lots being rented at Hampton Beach, and apparently the idea of leasing large sections of land must have appealed to the selectmen and to residents, especially after 1898, when the Hampton Beach Improvement Company began successfully to sublet its holdings on what is now the main beach. About the turn of the century, when squatters became especially numerous in the newly formed White Rocks Island section, the Town was again in court, losing to Frank Beckman in 1907, but winning its cases against the other squatters in the area. In 1905, Curtis DeLancey was paid $50 for "demolishing buildings at the beach," apparently structures the Town ordered owners to remove but that the latter failed to do.

The 1901 town meeting indefinitely postponed a warrant article that would have granted a 99-year lease for the land between the Causeway (Winnacunnet Road) and the North Hampton line to Wallace Lovell's Granite State Land Company, the same firm that developed Seabrook Beach. The success of the Hampton Beach Improvement Company had apparently convinced voters that if the Town was going to lease land, it had better do so as a Town project rather than allow a private company to do it. Therefore, in 1909, the town meeting voted to survey the North Beach section and to separate it into lots for lease, with the first option going to abutters, who owned the lots west of King's Highway on North Beach, lots that were originally set off in 1747 when this area was known as Huckleberry Flats. The Town paid $566 for the surveying and three abutters elected to lease adjacent land. E. G. Cole leased six blocks for 50 years at $600 per year, businessman Irving Powers and Life-saving Station Chief B. F. Smart each leased one block for $100 per year.

In June 1911, the Union reported, "A dozen cottages will be erected in the Pines section of town-owned land, first year of its development." The 1911 town report listed some $1,400 in Beach rental income, most of that from White Rocks Island. In 1912, the Town received $1,938 from the rental of one North Shore lot, four at Plaice Cove, 18 at the Pines, and 46 at White Rocks Island, while another 21 people owed back rent on a total of 29 lots. The 1914 town report carried an inventory of Town-owned Beach land: 75 lots at White Rocks Island, 156 at the Pines, 174 Plantation lots, 44 at Plaice Cove, and 24 on the North Shore. The leased land was valued at $131, 700, of which $10,000 was the Hampton Beach Improvement Company leasehold. The 1914 income, including the HBIC rent of $500, was $3, 279.20. Renters paid $8 per lot at White Rocks Island and up to $25 for oceanfront lots at the Pines. By 1916, the town report showed 305 Pines lots (which must have included White Rocks Island), 176 Plantation lots, 50 at Plaice Cove, and 30 on the North Shore. In 1917, the Town received $3,700 in rents; some $679 was due the Town. For some reason, the names of the three men who first had agreed to rent large locks at the Plantation are not included among the names of those paying rent.

In July 1914, the previously mentioned Newcomb case was reopened and heard by the State Supreme Court. Charles R. Newcomb claimed ownership of about 18 acres of land, including most of White Island, based on claims and grants going back to 1714. The land had been purchased five years earlier by Newcomb from the Granite State Land Company. This was the White Rocks Island section on which the Town claimed ownership, and leases had been paid to the Town since 1907. A referee ruled in favor of the Town.

The December 1916 souvenir edition of the Hampton Union included maps of many leased-land parcels, including White Island Point (lots $8 for year), Plaice Cove ($20 for oceanfront, $10 for back lots), North Shore and Plantation (lot rentals $25, $20, $10). The latter section was originally laid out in 1747, "adjacent to the site of the first house erected at beach about 1800. At that time and for long since considered worthless. It [the Plantation section] is now the most valuable asset the town owns."

The 1919 report carried the lengthy "Report of Court in Mitchell Case," one of the more interesting Hampton public documents. It contains much information about the ownership of private and public lands along North Beach. George E. Mitchell, who owned some 18 acres of land off King's Highway, claimed that his parcel extended across the highway to the ocean. The land in question had been purchased by Mitchell in 1889 from S. H. Dumas, who had purchased it from the heirs of David Nudd. For some reason, although the Town began to rent lots in the area in 1909, Mitchell did not contest the Town's ownership of the land until 1913. As mentioned earlier, in 1896 the selectmen had erected a line of stone posts along the west wide of King's Highway, this line being also approximately the location of an ancient fence that had been built sometime in the eighteenth century. This line, the Town said, was the western boundary of land the Town owned between the line and the ocean, extending from Winnacunnet Road to the North Hampton border.

The case was heard by a referee, who ruled that although many of the deeds Nudd gathered to create his property in the area included some variation of the words easterly to the sea, Nudd and the other previous owners of the plots of land apparently understood the term to mean that their property was easterly bounded by the sandhill land that bordered the sea. E. G. Cole, who was the north abutter of Mitchell, testified that his land ended at the King's Highway. The court document recounts a long list of public actions taken at various town meetings,s beginning in the early 1700s, at which the Town reinforced its claims to the land or the beachfront. Also mentioned are many successful efforts by the Town to remove squatters from the land. Called to testify, longtime selectman Joseph B. Brown told of several occasions when he, on the advice of a lawyer, had sent wagons to the Beach to remove the lumber and other construction materials from sites where people were attempting to build on Town land. Except for those illegal building efforts, Brown said he had never observed anyone attempting to occupy any of the land west of King's Highway.

Taking into consideration all the documents and testimony presented in evidence, the referee ruled that, since the Town had proceeded to survey the land in question and to lease the lots, and Mitchell had not attempted any occupation of the land since its purchase from Dumas, the Town did have title to the land under the original grant to the proprietors.

A few years later, the Town acted on another case of squatters at the Beach. During the 1850s, people began to erect summer bathhouses at the shore, both along the main beach and at North Beach, just south of what became the Coast Guard station site. At first, these were just simple structures, perhaps similar to gazebos, intended for use during the day as places for people to sit, enjoy lunch, and change their clothes. The largest group of summer bathhouses was at North Beach, and by 1907 the structures were considered so unsightly that the town meeting instructed the selectmen "to see that the bathhouses at North Beach be put in good condition, painted, put on proper foundations, &c; these improvements to be made at the owners' expense; also that they be instructed not to issue permits for the building of any houses in that locality except for strictly bathing purposes."

There is no indication in the newspapers that any improvements were made at that time. In 1925, the town meeting voted to instruct the selectmen to remove the bathhouses south of the Coast Guard station by the end of the year; and also to authorize the selectmen to build a public bathhouse there or to make arrangements with a private party to do so. Apparently the selectmen failed to follow the wishes of the meeting because at the 1926 meetings, following a lively debate, residents voted to rescind the 1925 action, allowing the bathhouses to remain. After the State acquired the beachfront in 1933, the bathhouses finally were removed.

By 1930, the value of leased-land rents was up to $8,300; in 1940, it was $9,600; in 1950, it totaled $11,900; and the 1960 rental income for 413 lots (at rents of $15 to $150 per lot) was $18,900. Following a study in 1961, Town officials determined that Hampton was getting only a 2.9 percent return on the land value, which was estimated to be worth $1.6 million if the land were sold. Since private investors would consider a 10 percent return adequate, the Town decided to increase its rental fees, choosing to set a return of 4.5 percent of value. Changes could not be made for existing leases, but new leases were subject to higher fees ranging from $150 per year on North Beach to $105 per year for rear lots in the Plantation and in the Pines section. Over 10 years, as new leases were written, this increase was calculated to generate another $26,000 in rental income.

This move by the selectmen prompted a successful citizens' petition at the 1962 town meeting that authorized the selectmen to appoint a committee to study the possible sale of the leased land, except for the Hampton Beach Improvement Company leasehold. The Committee issued a questionnaire to nearly 400 lessees. According to study committee chairman John Long, out of 191 responses, 133 renters wanted to buy their lots. However, the renters expressed cries of disbelief at a public hearing in January 1963 when Town Manager Kenneth Boehner suggested that the selling prices could be $5,000 for oceanfront and $3,000 to $4,000 for back lots. Many questioned whether or not they would be forced to buy their lots arguing that they had a deal with the Town and it should not be changed. Howard Page, Jr., who had initiated the petition article and wanted to buy his lot, said that the lease payment was like another tax and that the amount could be doubled over the next 10 years. He said that many banks were reluctant to give mortgages on buildings for which the owners only leased their lots.

The committee report to the 1963 town meeting recommended against the sale of the leased land, listing five areas of study: (1) the potential for increased income from the new rental fees; (2) positive controls over the land through the leases; (3) the fact that the leased land could not be sold without a vote of the Town; (4) the fact that the terms of the leases did not protect the leaseholders' rights to buy their lots; and (5) the possibility of placing income from the land sale in a trust fund. The committee concluded that Town controls over the leases had a beneficial effect on the Beach, that there would be a rapid change in ownership if the land was sold and the result would be harmful to the Town, and that it would be "highly improbable" that the Town could set a fair price for the lots. The committee believed the Town should not force lessees to buy their lots, and they explained that the Town did not have the statutory power to set up a trust fund. The committee did recommend that the terms of leases be extended from 10 years to 15 years and that rents be tied to a fair assessment of the land value at the current tax rate. The 1964 town meeting did approve the 15-year leases (in cases of leases expiring after April 1965), and in 1974, without a town meeting vote, the selectmen began offering 25-year leases. The 1964 Precinct meeting adopted a set of recommendations compiled by its own leased-land study committee, which was appointed as a result of the 1963 Precinct meeting. The Precinct's suggestions were incorporated into an article that was defeated at the 1965 town meeting. The article would have eliminated the lease provision that allowed the rents to be increased every three and seven years; would have given leaseholders the option of buying their lot based on a price set by a three-arbitrator panel; would have protected leaseholders from being compelled to buy their lots; and would have prohibited an enhancement tax from being added to the building that would increase the property tax.

The 1970 town meeting approved two ballot questions, probably the first time voters had acted upon leased-land questions outside of the deliberative meeting. The first article permitted the appointment of a committee by the moderator "to consider whether the Town and the Hampton Beach Improvement Company could agree upon a plan by which persons holding lots under the Improvement Company might acquire rights extending beyond the term of the Town lease to the Improvement Company; and to report to the next Annual Meeting, with or without recommendations." The second article gave the selectmen the power to see any leased lots to lessees at a value set by the 1968 property valuation. In April 1971, Mr. and Mrs. Linwood Taylor signed a purchase-and-sales agreement on a North Beach lot, the first to do so under the terms of that latter article, although they did not take title to the land until 1975. The first article proved to be more difficult to resolve. At the 1971 meeting, the committee delayed the completion of its study until the 1972 town meeting.

Also, in 1970 (when land rent income was $55,787), the selectmen announced another increase in rents; this time the annual payment would be equal to the previous year's taxes on the land, since the rent was due May, before the tax rate was set. On one of the first leases to be renewed, the lot rent increased from $125 to $950.

The 1972 town meeting reaffirmed the right of the selectmen to continue to sell the leased lots, but at current market value, and also authorized the selectmen to convey to quitclaim deed 32 lots in the HBIC area that in some way had been quitclaim deeded by HBIC officials. These property owners claimed to have deeds to their lots, paid no rent to the HBIC, and also paid no taxes on the land to the Town. Without further payment to the Town, the owners of the structures on these lots received quitclaim deeds, and tax bills on the land.

The 1974 town meeting acted upon several articles relating to leased land. First residents voted to rescind previous votes giving the selectmen the authority to sell leased land, except for five lease for which sales agreements had previously been signed. Actually, agreements had been reached on only four sales; a fifth agreement with Earl Adams was still being negotiated. A motion to amend the article to just four sales failed on a hand vote. Voters rejected another article that would have allowed the sales to continue, placing the income in a bank account with the interest to be used to offset taxes (the latter provision would have required an act of the Legislature); and approved a third article that prohibited forever (unless changed by vote of a town meeting) the sale of the former Coast Guard station site, a lot at the junction of King's Highway, High Street, and Ocean Boulevard (which was to remain undeveloped for traffic safety reasons, but which has been developed as the free parking lot adjacent to the traffic lights), and all of the easternmost lots at the Pines that had not already been leased.

Prior to the 1974 vote prohibiting the further sale of leased land, the selectmen early in 1973 decided their authority to sell was discretionary and they agreed not to sell any more lots. In January 1975, however, three Pines lots were sold to Earl Adams, who had built the seasonal U. S. Apartments building on the lots a few years earlier. This sale was one of five grandfathered as a result of action at the 1974 town meeting, and it proved to be a controversial decision, especially since Adams's sales agreement had not been finalized before the 1974 meeting. Some people had objected to Adams being given a lease in the first place, since his lots were sand dunes.

By 1976, 234 leaseholds (out of more than 400 leased directly by the Town) had been converted from the old rental rates to the new method of basing the rent on the previous year's tax rate at the current year's valuation. In that year, the Town received nearly $134,000 in rent.

The 1981 town meeting voters were ready to deal with the leased-land problem in a comprehensive manner. One of th problems that faced leaseholders in the HBIC area was the matter of the company's lease, which would expire in 1997. The leaseholders wanted to know what their rights would be after that time. At the meeting, voters began the action that has resulted in the sale of most of the Town-owned lots at the Beach. Article 21 asked the Town to give the selectmen authority again to sell leased lots at the current market value to the lessees, except for the HBIC, and for the sales proceeds to be placed in a trust fund and the interest to be used, "from time to time .... for the purchase, construction, or improvement of real estate for the town." Voters instead approved an amendment, or substitute article, which authorized the moderator to appoint a seven-member leased-land study committee "to study the implications of the Town leased land program, both as pertains to the Hampton Beach Improvement Co. lease and to other town owned leased land. Such committee to report to the town in the 1981 town report for action at the 1982 town meeting." This substitute article continued to prohibit the selectmen from selling any more lots, but a subsequent article authorized selectmen to grant leases based on the Town; reversionary rights in the HBIC land as long as the new leases, which were to be granted only to HBIC tenants, did not extend beyond March 2002.

In its report to the 1982 town meeting, the leased-land study committee (by a vote of 4-3) recommended the sale of the land, called for the creation of a real estate commission, outlined a system for appraisals, called for the sale of the lots at 30 percent of their fair market value (which recognized the lessees' leasehold interest, some of which extended back for generations and others that only began the night before a subsequent special meeting), and suggested that the Town finance the lots at 12 percent interest for terms of no more than 20 years. Leaseholders not wishing to buy their lots could continue to lease. If the Town decided not to sell the lots, then the rent would be equal to the taxes.

The March annual meeting also passed three related articles. The first article adopted a 1975 enabling statue (written by 1970 leased-land study committee member James Fallon, Jr.) that allowed the Town to place lot-sales proceeds in a real estate trust fund. The other two articles asked the local legislative delegation to file two bills, one to amend that 1975 law so the lot-sales principal would have to be held in trust and not used by the Town for real estate construction purposes, and the second to establish a Hampton Leased Land Real Estate Commission. A special town meeting was called for May 1982 to act on the land-sale article itself. (Another article at the regular annual meeting, which was tabled, asked the Town to appropriate $20,000 and again to contest the HBIC lease, this time because the Company had begun charging its tenants a percentage of their liquor sales income as part of the rental payment. Later, some of the Beach businesses in question sued the HBIC and lost.)

Proponents of the sale had strong economic arguments: The 649 lots (including the HBIC lots) had an assessed value of $20.1 million, meaning that if all lots sold at 30 percent of value, the Town would net $6 million for its trust fund. If invested at 12 percent, that fund would give the Town $720,000 in annual income, compared to the $275,000 received in rents at the time. Once the land was sold, the Town would also receive taxes on it, so the trust fund money would be in addition to the current income.

Opponents included many old-timers who believed the Town lands were a trust received from earlier residents and the land should not be sold. The Union also opposed the sale, feeling that perhaps the Town would receive more in rent money as the flat-fee lots were converted to tax-based rents.

At the May special meeting, attended by some 600 voters and leaseholders, the proposed sale of the Town-owned leased land passed, 223-187. The Legislature passed the laws necessary to set up the trust fund and real estate commission the next year. Although generations of residents had acted to protect the Town's rights to the Town-owned Beach land since 1638, a majority of the voters at that meeting decided it was in the best interest of the Town to allow the direct lessees and sublessees of the HBIC to own their lots.

On the night before the special meeting, the Board of Selectmen voted to give leases on eight Pines lots to attorney, leased-land study committee member, and Selectman Brian Doherty and his fiancee. The unimproved lots, merely sand dunes, were on an early town plan, and houses had been located on them at one time. A storm in the early 1920s destroyed the houses, including one owned by Fred Gagne, so the tenants let their leases lapse, making an informal agreement with the selectmen to keep the land open to the public, according to Gagne's daughter, Diana Lamontagne, a former selectman. Those who lost their homes were given lots elsewhere. When residents learned of the leases to Doherty, there was a town uproar, and Doherty, claiming no wrongdoing, returned the leases to the Town. (It will be recalled that in 1974 the Town had voted not to lease any lots in that area of the Beach. As a result of this situation, the eight lots, plus any other formed by accretion, were designated as a perpetual park by town meeting.)

In October 1982, selectmen began signing sales agreements that gave the lessees up to three years to purchase their land, a time period allowed because the Legislature had not yet acted upon the necessary measures to create the real estate trust fund. As a result of the 1986 town meeting, lessees were given 90 days to purchase their lots after signing a sales agreement. The sales were handled by the real estate commission, whose five members were appointed in May 1983 by the Superior Court from a list of 10 nominees drawn up by the selectmen. Also at the 1986 meeting, residents voted to suspend all sales in the HBIC area until the HBIC lease expired in 1997. The sale of HBIC lots was approved again at the 1988 town meeting.

As of December 13, 1988, the real estate trust fund totaled $11.9 million, and earned nearly $1 million in interest for the general fund. Outstanding mortgages, on lot sales financed by the Town, equaled $1.5 million. Of 650 available lots, 555 lots (including the Casino lots) had been purchased by their lessees. Although some 63 percent of the HBIC lots were also purchased, the 1986 town meeting voted to stop sales in the HBIC area until after the lease expires in 1997.

The decision to sell the leased land is one of the most important acts made by a Hampton town meeting -- comparable to the decision to grant the original HBIC lease. On the passage of time will determine the ultimate impact of the land sale.

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