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At Hampton Beach, a Long History of Disputes Between Town and State

Courtesy the Hampton Historical Society
Storm damage like this eventually convinced the town of Hampton to give the beach to the state.

Imagine you’re at Hampton Beach, strolling down Ocean Boulevard. To one side you have the long sandy beach and open ocean; to the other, a seemingly endless row of motels, restaurants, arcades, and t-shirt shops.

When the breeze picks up, you can just catch the smell of sunscreen and fried dough. It’s the quintessential Hampton Beach scene. But it turns out that your view of it can depend a lot on which side of the boulevard you’re standing on – the side owned by the state or the side owned by the town.

Hampton Selectman Phil Bean sees it from the town side. And at a selectmen meeting a few months back he minced few words in describing the state’s side.

“It is one that’s characterized by neglect, despotism, an autocratic non-response towards the citizenry, it’s totalitarian.”

In case you couldn’t tell, Bean thinks the town gets a raw deal when it comes to the beach.

Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR

Listen to the radio version of this story.

Ocean Boulevard’s parking meters bring in more than two million dollars a year. But the majority of that money doesn’t stay in Hampton; it goes to fund the rest of the state parks system. Bean says the beach gets neglected in the process.

To help make his point, at the selectmen meeting, Bean presented a slideshow titled “Tyranny at the Beach.” It featured photos taken in early May that show broken railings as well as sand and trash blown across the boardwalk.

A slide from Phil Bean's presentation.

“This is the beach, this is the fence, this is what it looks like. It’s looks ghetto, it looks third-world-nation. The governor should have a real keen interest in this.”

Recently the governor did take a keen interest in Hampton Beach, glad handing beachgoers as he toured touring local businesses. But his outlook on the beach was decidedly sunnier than Bean’s.

“Who doesn’t want to be here today, right!? I mean, where else would you want to be than lying on Hampton Beach, so it’s just an awesome day.”

Before his visit to Hampton, Sununu had met with Bean to discuss his concerns. He called the meeting productive.

“Oh Phil is great. We just talked about some of the maintenance issues and making sure we’re keeping on the upkeep and I think we’re doing a great job. I mean, look around, you’re telling me the state isn’t living up to their end of the bargain? We’re doing a great job.”

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR
Governor Sununu's appraisal of Hampton was decidedly more positive than Representative Bean's.

Differences of opinion on what should happen at Hampton Beach reach back decades. In fact, at least as far back as the 1920s, there was bitter debate about whether the state should play any role at all at the beach.

By this period, Hampton Beach was already a major tourist destination. The casino ballroom had recently been built and a steady stream of beachgoers was brought in by trolley.

But Hampton’s burgeoning popularity brought with it a serious existential threat: erosion.

“Acres and acres of land were lost. And houses had gone out to sea and whole streets had disappeared and sewer systems and streetlights were gone.”

Betty Moore is Director of the Hampton Historical Society. She says decades of overdevelopment along with a series of storms swept away so much land, maps had to be redrawn.

"I think it’s hard for me to even imagine how much it’s changed.”

Credit Hampton: A Century of Town & Beach, Peter Randall / Google Earth

By the late 1920s, Hampton officials were looking to the state for help. But lawmakers in Concord weren’t keen on simply handing over the cash for a new seawall. They offered to protect the beach -- but only if they could own it, by making the beach a state park.

The state’s offer went to a town vote. And by a razor thin margin -- it failed. The town refused to give up the beach.

Credit Courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society

But then, in 1933, another storm hit. Three feet of floodwater rolled over Ocean Boulevard.

Finally, after years of battling the sea, and now in the midst of the Great Depression, a beleaguered Hampton agreed to hand over the beach. And the state went about building the seawalls and jetties that exist today.

Which, some 84 years later, brings us back to Phil Bean. He says the state may have saved the beach then but now they’re using it as a cash cow.

“We’re in a much better position, obviously, than in 1933. We are the dog wagging the tail down there.”

Along with being a Hampton Selectmen, Bean is a state representative. Last session he introduced a bill that would’ve opened the door to having the town take back the beach under a lease agreement with the state.

“That is probably, of all the things that Mr. Bean has come up with, that is probably one of the most ludicrous ideas I have ever heard of in my life.”

Fred Rice is a former state rep and selectman in Hampton. He says the current system works pretty well. Sure, there are always issues to be worked out – who plows the sidewalks, who picks up the trash, who pays for fire and ambulance service. But he says the approach to solving those issues should be more collaboration with the state, not less.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Bean’s bid to explore leasing the beach to the town never made it out of committee. Which means for the time being, the state and town will continue to coexist at the beach, divided by Ocean Boulevard.

But for the average beachgoer, running across the road for another bottle of sunscreen, it hardly feels like a border at all.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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