06/15/2004: Breaking News
Libertarians set sights on Grafton, NH
The Free Town Project is an offshoot of the Free State Project. Members hope to make Grafton a laboratory to test their unconventional ideas.
from Concord Monitor
GRAFTON - Strangers don't have much reason to come to this town of sweeping mountain views and sagging barns. The natives like it that way.
The old Ruggles Mine attracts some tourists each summer. A few Moonies moved in about 10 years ago, but they left after one brutal winter.
But a new challenge may soon break Grafton's isolation. The Free Town Project, a group of libertarians looking for a laboratory to test their ideas, is targeting Grafton. While none has moved in yet, the self-styled "liberators" are laying the groundwork for their vision.
One project member recently bought 400 acres here and is vague about his plans. Another promises to "overwhelm" town elections and rid Grafton of taxes and public education. Such opinions, while viewed by most residents with a mix of skepticism and amusement, are testing the town's independent, live-and-let-live attitude.
"In the '60s, it used to be, 'The Russians are coming!'" said Ken Cushing, owner of Wild Meadows Auto Body. "Now it's 'The libertarians are coming!'"
MoreAt the town offices, secretary Bonnie Haubrich said the Free Towners are the talk of nearly everyone who stops by. In e-mails and over coffee at the country store, Graftonites swap rumors about the would-be colonists. Community leaders have invited Free Town Project members to explain their mission at a special meeting this Saturday. Until then, tempers in this town of 1,200 continue to simmer.
"I think everybody's angry about this," said Frank Kimball, an 85-year-old lifelong Grafton resident. "If they get a foothold in here, then you're cooked."
One of the most outspoken Free Towners is Larry Pendarvis of Florida. The 61-year-old Internet consultant runs a mail-order bride service and said he was once a polygamist. He hopes to attract 300 other libertarians to Grafton. With that voting block, he'd dismantle the town planning board, do away with mandatory recycling and shoo away any busybodies.
"Our dream is to move libertarians and only libertarians to Grafton and get rid of the petty Hitlers who try to control things," Pendarvis said in an interview. He'd also do away with "victimless crime" laws, a list of which he recited in a monotone drawl: selling drugs, incest, prostitution and gambling.
Pendarvis said he'll elaborate on these plans at Saturday's meeting.
Live Free or Die
The Free Town Project began last year as a faction of the better-known Free State Project, a group of 6,000 libertarians who vow to move to New Hampshire and create a utopia of low taxes and little government regulation. They chose New Hampshire last October because of its citizen legislature and "Live Free or Die" tradition. Republican Gov. Craig Benson offered an early endorsement. "Come on up, we'd love to have you," he told the group last summer.
Half a dozen Free Staters decided last winter that they would have a bigger impact if they settled in a single town. The search for a hospitable environment took them all over New Hampshire. In February, they visited a dozen towns, including Dalton, Lempster, Grafton and Windsor.
Grafton's lack of zoning regulations and small population appealed immediately. The town's seclusion had bred a distinct strain of Yankee independence that the libertarians liked as well. And it was one of the few towns where the police chief was an elected position, promising a more populist handle on law and order.
Grafton also offered something no other place could: state Libertarian Party Chairman John Babiarz. The former gubernatorial candidate lives here, and although he's not a member of the movement, Babiarz volunteered to show the members around.
"They just want to energize politics in this town," Babiarz said.
The would-be settlers are already having an impact. Pendarvis, for one, is notorious for his tartly worded postings to the group's Yahoo message board and on his site, freetownproject.org. In a recent posting, Pendarvis (who also goes by the name Zach Bass) railed against "a--holes in Grafton who try to FORCE their neighbors to comply" with a ban on junkyards.
Such rhetoric has led the leaders of the Free State Project to distance themselves from the Free Towners. "They're not associated with us in any way," said Amanda Phillips, who heads the state group.
In Grafton, the town residents and the newcomers are both using the Internet to recruit support. Pendarvis posted a list of Grafton landowners and tax maps to his site, to help fellow libertarians in their house-hunting. A handful of residents created their own Web site, savegrafton.org, to track the libertarians' movements. Many Graftonites also regularly log on to the Free Town message board.
"Based on what they say, I think something bad is going to happen,"said Rebecca Richard, a founder of the "Save Grafton" site.
Pendarvis said he's not worried by such opposition. He's not about to change his style to woo his future neighbors.
"I presume they don't like libertarians," he said. "That's okay; I'll bring my own."
Not all the Free Towners share Pendarvis's militancy. Tim Condon, a Florida lawyer, has more modest goals.
"We just want to move in and be good neighbors," Condon said. "We would seek to prevent people from misusing local government. I can't think of anything in particular that we would do to change the place."
Grafton's setting, in a wide valley between Mount Cardigan and Ragged Mountain, could lure any visitor, libertarian or not. The view of green hills stretches for miles. Old-timers gather twice a day on the porch of the general store for coffee and gossip. Dirt roads wind through forests thick with ferns and evergreens.
Grafton pays a price for such isolation. There are few jobs in town, and shopping trips require a 45-minute drive to Lebanon or Concord. An abandoned gas station sits in the center of town, the sign above the pump frozen at $1.29 per gallon. More than 20 percent of the town's housing units are mobile homes or RVs. Many residents work at home, running auto repair shops in their back yards or selling trinkets on eBay.
Bob Hull, another Free Towner from New Jersey, found something to love in Grafton. He recently bought 240 swampy acres on the east side of town and hopes to move in soon. He said he might sell some land to other Free Towners or develop it himself. Hull said he'll understand if his neighbors don't welcome him immediately.
"I guess a certain amount of xenophobia should be expected,"Hull said.
Many Grafton residents said they hope to have a better idea of the project's intentions after this week's meeting. In the meantime, speculation reigns.
Frank Neufell, a Grafton selectman, said many people he's talked to worry that rapid development could cause their property taxes to skyrocket.
The head of Grafton's Democratic Party, Neil Kenny, wonders how the peculiar calculus of small-town politics would play out with the newcomers. It wouldn't take a huge influx of libertarians to take over Grafton's government, Kenny predicted.
"If they move in 150 registered voters," he said, "they'll control the town."
3 Annotations Submitted
Wednesday the 16th of June, santo26 noted:
If I was a biker, I would say screw Laconia and take over Grafton the moment the Libertarians stuff the ballot boxes and overturn all of the laws. How could you not? Will a bunch of political nerds be able to handle the reins of government in a Wild West -esque situation?
To quote IBNR's take on a Carla Howell rally,: "This is like a f'ing Star Trek convention. These people aren't going to get anywhere."
Thursday the 17th of June, prof_booty noted:
but they are attempting to change the status quo, instead of just bitching and moaning about it.
Friday the 18th of June, santo26 noted:
although i have always been interested in the free staters, what if 6- 10, 000 people whose politics you didn't necessarily agree with suddenly moved into watertown and deposed pam piantedosi and replaced her with one of their minions? although i think the free staters are courageous for acting on their beliefs, it is going to be interesting to watch them fight against the grafton townies. and the bikers. will they comport themselves with political dignity and eventually win the graftonites over to their cause or will they set back the libertarian cause 20 years?