Voting Question Renews Fears Totem Pole Will Turn Into Trailer Park

Freedom — October 5, 2004 — The attorney general’s office is reviewing a state law to determine whether voting rights of campers at a Freedom recreational vehicle park can be restricted by the town.

Freedom residents are concerned if Totem Pole campground owners gain the right to vote, it will move them a step close to becoming full-time residents, and that, potentially, could overload the town’s school and services.

“We are analyzing the law to determine whether it is permissible, with the kind of agreement that is in place there, to restrict the right to vote,” Assistant Attorney General Bud Fitch said Thursday. “The issue is whether or not (owners) can voluntarily give up, or the town can take away, the right to vote under the circumstances.”

The investigation sprung up when a Totem Pole Park site owner, after being denied voter registration by the town in August, contacted the attorney general’s office, according to planning board member Geraldine Lippincott. “Somebody from Totem Pole has gone to the attorney general for the right to vote,” she said.

Many residents fear a successful bid for voting rights will further slash barriers that prevent the 459-site seasonal campground from becoming a 360-day per year trailer park. “It is a problem because along with voting is a residency issue,” she said. “The big fear is that if we have people living here full-time it will turn into a trailer park.”

Circumstances involve a recent agreement between the Totem owners association and the planning board to increase seasonal overnight use of sites from six to eleven months. The agreement, an amendment to Totem’s 1987 subdivision approval, which includes a controversial good faith clause forbidding individual wells, also prohibits establishment of full-time residency by owners. The two prohibitions may not be legal under state law, leaving selectmen potentially powerless to enforce them.

The enforceability of both inclusions has been harshly questioned since the agreement was approved in late August. A group of Freedom residents quickly contacted a lawyer to see if the document would weather a Totem challenge, but took it no further. The group remains fearful and members said they will watch carefully how the town handles the matter.

Since then, town attorney John Ratigan has consulted the attorney general’s office about camper’s voting rights. “We talked a little about it and where the edge of the water was,” he said. To date, he has no clear answers for selectmen, but said he has heard rumors that the challengers have backed down. “I heard that they may be handling this internally,” he reported, “and that the people interested in (voting) have since backed off from their request. They don’t want to jeopardize their approval.”

Totem association president Paul Corbin could not be reached for comment.

Fitch said his office is researching a state law that may contradict the voting restrictions placed on Totem by the August agreement. The subdivision agreement prohibits residency, voting and the benefit of state and town services for Totem owners. The law, Fitch said, allows a person who lives in one place more than any other, the right to vote in that place.

Section 654:1 under Title LXIII reads, “An inhabitant’s domicile for voting purposes is that one place where a person, more than any other place, has established a physical presence and manifests an intent to maintain a single continuous presence for domestic, social, and civil purposes relevant to participating in democratic self-government. A person has the right to change domicile at any time; however a mere intention to change domicile in the future does not, of itself, terminate an established domicile before the person actually moves.”

Clause number three of the town’s agreement with Totem reads, “This recreational campground use, by definition, is intended for temporary occupancy for recreational dwelling purposes only, and, therefore, no occupant of the campground, other than the manager in residence or the owner or tenant of the Commercial Unit or the owner or occupants of Unit 46, may establish residency of domicile at the campground. No campground site occupant or owner, solely because of such occupancy or ownership, may register to vote, register a motor vehicle, enroll children in school, gain entitlement to any state or municipal welfare benefit or otherwise use the occupancy at the Totem Pole Campground to establish domicile or residency in the Town of Freedom, New Hampshire.”

Should a resident establish residency or receive any benefit thereof, “… such a circumstance shall be prima facie evidence of a violation of this approval and shall entitle the Town to revoke this approval or take any other enforcement action authorized by law,” according to the agreement.

Lippincott echoes a worry which has permeated the community of about 1,200 over recent months: how will Freedom taxpayers afford services for an additional 1,000 residents who may stand to receive them. “It’s not the people who can afford to have a vacation spot. We are worried about the desperate and homeless,” she said. “The state has to take care of homeless children,” she added. “A lot of residents feel this would place an undo tax burden on individuals.”

Corbin has been dismissive of fears that park owners may use the agreement as a step towards residency and flood the schools with “homeless” children.

“It cannot happen. If we are not residents of the town, [school] is not entitled to us. It’s someone’s dream,” he said in August.

He explained that only a small percentage are interested in any form of winter use and that residency is forbidden by their condominium declaration, which can only be changed by a vote in favor of no less than 306 out of 459.

The planning board recently defended its position to allow seasonal overnight use of sites to increase from six to eleven months. “Basically we left it that the agreement has been signed,” Lippincott said.

The association has 459 units, most of which are 400 square-foot park model travel trailers valued around $80,000, including the site, and owned by retirees and upscale families from Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, according to Corbin.

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