Board OKs look of new courthouse

MERRIMACK – Town councilors made a final judgment on the design of a new district courthouse Thursday, accepting a building that will pick up elements of current town properties.

That item topped a busy agenda for the council, which also rejected a proposed demolition ordinance and a request to put a property tax spending cap to voters.

The Merrimack District Courthouse, scheduled for construction starting this spring, was originally planned to mirror courthouses in Dover and Jaffrey. But town officials asked the state to present something that would better align with the current court and Town Hall. The updated design has a gabled roof, green shutters and clapboard elements.

The design itself garnered praise for most councilors, but some had concerns about easements the state was requesting for utility lines. The lines would run Park. It was determined that the only vegetation affected would be some brush and immature tree growth.

In the end, the council voted for the design and easements, 6-1. Councilor Mike Malzone opposed both.

Councilors downed a demolition review ordinance, which had been proposed as a way to encourage developers or owners of historic properties to owners to seek alternatives to demolition.

The idea was generated following the razing of Madden’s Restaurant on Daniel Webster Highway. It called for a public hearing and discussion with the town’s heritage commission, among other provisions – none of which would ultimately tie a property owner’s hands.

>>Town Meeting ‘09<< Resident Nancy Gagnon of Bedford Road told the council that the ordinance violated her rights as a homeowner. "I'm standing here tonight because this particular ordinance affects me personally and friends of ours that own old homes," she said. "We feel we're being targeted . . . and that they will come through our homes and tell us what we should or shouldn't do." Heritage commission member Dave Nichols countered that the group's intention was to "ask for a breath" and have a discussion, not take away property rights. Councilor Tim Tenhave said he thought preserving historic buildings was a good thing but that the ordinance didn't seem to be the best tool to do that. Other councilors agreed for similar reasons. Councilors Finlay Rothhaus and Nancy Harrington supported the ordinance; the rest opposed. Malzone then asked the six other members to support putting a tax cap on April's ballot. The measure would require town officials to stay within the previous year's budget number, plus inflation. Other communities in the state are considering similar proposals spurred by the New Hampshire Advantage Coalition. Having examined the proposed language carefully, several councilors wondered about how the cap would really work. "If it was to limit a budget increase, I could maybe get on board with that . . . but by capping the tax rate, too many variables that come in to play and it makes it almost impossible to do a legitimate job for the town," Councilor Finlay Rothhaus said. Councilor Tim Tenhave also argued about the logistics of the proposal. Budgets are formed more than a year before tax rates are actually set, he said, so setting a cap would an already complicated process more difficult. He added that voters get the last word with the budgets during deliberative session and voting day. "I can't support this because I think it's flawed," Tenhave said. "It hasn't been tested at the state level for a town yet." Malzone ended up being the only supporter of the request to get an item on the ballot. After the meeting, he pledged to start a citizen-driven petition in order to put the question to voters in 2010.