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Chesterfield's historic, long-vacant Marsh House nears sale
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CHESTERFIELD — Right in the center of town, the 171-year-old Marsh House — which has been host to a farm, a dental practice, the police department and town offices — might soon be revitalized to serve the community in a new way.

At a Chesterfield Planning Board meeting Monday evening, members reviewed a change of use application submitted by New England Heritage LLC, and voted unanimously to conditionally approve it. The renovated building would have a café on the first floor and a short-term rental space on the second.

New England Heritage would manage the building and the rental unit upstairs, but a separate entity would run the café, according to New England Heritage co-founder Dylan Eastman of Winchester.

He and Gabriel Jones of Gilsum launched New England Heritage to save older buildings through adaptive reuse, Eastman said in an email to The Sentinel.

“Everything about this building makes it pivotal to being a community asset. For starters, it is the town’s property,” Eastman wrote. “In order to be good stewards of the space, that should be reflected in the end use which must involve the community.”

He said he wants to create a community gathering space there, and made sure to note in his application that the farmers market could use the first floor to continue operating through the winter, and the space would be donated for the planning and use of Old Home Days.

At the meeting, Jones said the rental space upstairs would be leased out “for short stays, sort of like an Airbnb or something of that nature.”

For 14 years, the Marsh House has been unused, slowly deteriorating as the town tried to figure out what to do with it. Though demolition had been suggested a number of times, residents pushed back, and advocates sought to preserve the building.

“It seems like such a waste,” said Neil Jenness, the Chesterfield Historical Society’s president since 1986, of the house’s vacancy.

“It is a place I and the historical society have wanted to preserve because it’s right in the center of town,” she added. “It’s just always been there.”

The former town office building is at 504 Route 63 and sits on just under 2.8 acres of land, according to planning board Chairman James Corliss.

Audrey Ericson, 89, has lived in Chesterfield for most of her life and is the town historian. She said the Marsh House is one of the more impressive buildings in town, and that being on Route 63, the proposed café could see a lot of traffic from parents dropping their children off at school.

From when the house was built in 1850 until it was bought by the town in 1980, the property was privately owned by different wealthy families, she said.

From 1980 until 2007, the Marsh House served as the town office. The building has been vacant since 2007, when a new town office was built farther up the road.

In the fall of 2017, Chesterfield resident Jeff Scott and two others asked the selectboard if they could clean out the building and advertise it for $1. The structure is laden with problems, from water seeping into the basement to the lead paint covering the walls. In 2018, it was estimated that a full renovation would cost $440,000.

Not long after that, a group of residents added an article to the town meeting warrant to set aside $30,000 to have the building demolished. But at that town meeting, residents voted by a two-to-one ratio to save the Marsh House. They also voted to allow the building to be sold for $1, according to Scott, who said the general consensus was that residents wanted some kind of community space.

The structure was added to the N.H. Preservation Alliance’s Seven to Save list in 2019.

This past February, Kristin McKeon, who worked alongside Scott to advocate for the building’s preservation, posted the house to CheapOldHouses.com. Scott said he received between 100 and 125 inquiries about it.

Not long after the building went viral online, Eastman reached out to Scott, and Scott said he enjoyed showing the house to Eastman and his team.

“What I like about them, they’re really humble, community-minded people,” Scott said. “They were such a pleasure to meet with.”

From all the inquiries made about the Marsh House came six proposals, and Scott said the selectboard chose New England Heritage’s because it best fit the interests of the town.

Eastman, who owns Monadnock Design Studio in Keene, said he first noticed the building last fall, adding that he had always loved that part of Chesterfield for its serenity and beauty.

The building’s exterior would be renovated only to return the appearance to its original state, including the gingerbread trim and uniquely patterned roof, selectboard Chairman Gary Winn said at Monday’s planning board meeting, which was held over Zoom. New England Heritage would have more freedom when renovating inside the Marsh House, he noted.

Conditions for the planning board approval include specifying that there would be no alcohol or tobacco products sold on the property and submitting an updated version of the site drawing to the planning board that includes the location of the business’ sign.

Chesterfield selectboard member Fran Shippee said Tuesday that she believes the sale will be finalized June 30.

Eastman said as soon as the project has been approved and the building is transferred to New England Heritage’s ownership, the company will immediately begin work to weatherize and stabilize the building, and he hopes to open the café later this year. Until then, he’s looking forward to the future of the project and is grateful for those who have supported him and his team so far.

“The community support and outpouring has been tremendous,” he said.

These Canada Geese took to Pearly Pond in Rindge for a family outing Sunday. The family should find land conditions much more comfortable the rest of this week, as temperatures cool and the humidity wanes.

Senate committee unanimously rejects ‘medical protective custody’ proposal

A state proposal to give hospitals their own power to detain people in emergency rooms while deciding their mental health needs was rejected, 4-0, by a Senate committee Tuesday following a two-hour public hearing where no one voiced support.

“While the issues identified in this are important and need a resolution, we’ve run out of time,” said Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, of the last-minute legislative request from the state Department of Health and Human Services. He continued, “There’s no consensus that anybody’s bought into, and I see no way this amendment can go forward without an awful lot of collaboration amongst the interested parties.”

The committee voted the amendment to House Bill 565 inexpedient to legislate.

Opponents said DHHS’s last-minute request for a “medical protective custody” provision risked extending emergency room waits, failed to make clear how a patient could challenge a detainment, and contained no guidelines for deciding who could be held.

“Providing patients that due process is imperative,” said Steve Ahnen, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, who was joined in opposing the proposal by people who’ve been hospitalized during a mental health crisis and several advocacy groups, including NAMI NH, the ACLU of New Hampshire, and the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center. “But just as important,” Ahnen continued, “is getting patients the care they need. We are concerned this amendment would perpetuate a system of delaying when patients are able to get that care they need.”

In mid-May, the state Supreme Court ruled the state has violated mental health patients’ due process rights by holding them in emergency rooms beyond three days without a hearing. DHHS Commissioner Lori Shibinette said Tuesday the state resolved that problem quickly by persuading long-term care facilities and local hospitals to provide more beds in exchange for increased payments.

The number of adults waiting in emergency rooms has gone from 42 in mid-May to zero Monday. The number of kids, however, has gone from 25 to 33 in that time.

Shibinette said a new medical protective custody provision was intended to give hospitals a way to hold, assess, and care for patients who need treatment but not something as drastic as involuntary commitment to the state hospital. It’s something hospitals have long asked for, she said. In the past three weeks, 25 involuntary emergency admission petitions filed by hospitals were dropped, 15 of them because, upon assessment, those patients needed substance misuse treatment, not hospitalization.

In her remarks to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Shibinette acknowledged the lack of support among advocates and providers. “I asked them all the same questions,” she said. “If not this, then what?”

For the most part, those who testified Tuesday, who saw Shibinette’s proposal for the first time less than two weeks ago, did not propose an alternative idea. Instead, they detailed their concerns and pledged to collaborate with Shibinette on another approach.

Gilles Bissonnette, ACLU legal counsel and the attorney in a federal case against DHHS over long emergency room detainments, said the legislation, as written, could have allowed a hospital to detain someone for up to six days without a court hearing to challenge their detainment, first under a medical protective custody emergency admission law.

Bissonnette said the challenge and court review process should happen much sooner and be more clearly defined.

Ken Norton, executive director of NAMI NH, said his organization could support an alternative to the involuntary admission process if there was a clearer standard for determining who is held and a guarantee among the state, local hospitals, and commercial insurance providers that alternative treatment options exist.

“The major problem with this proposed amendment is that it’s fatally flawed in that it presumes mental health treatment is available in emergency departments. Simply stated, it is not,” he said. “Enacting this medical protective custody provision without first ensuring the treatment is available at local hospitals will likely mean people in a mental health crisis will languish,” he said.

House, Senate debate making FAFSA college aid applications a high school graduation requirement

CONCORD — Lawmakers in the House and Senate are at odds over an obscure education debate: whether to require high school students to fill out federal college aid applications in order to graduate.

Members of the Senate have voted to introduce the requirement. Voting 24-0 in March, the chamber passed Senate Bill 147, part of which would have required high school seniors 18 and older to fill out an application for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to get their diploma.

FAFSA applications are a free option for high school students to determine how much financial aid they might receive from colleges and universities — both federal aid and private aid.

Under the Senate proposal, brought forward by Keene Democratic Sen. Jay Kahn, an 18-year-old student would have to either fill out a FAFSA application or complete a waiver that states they have chosen not to do so. School districts would be required to provide assistance to the students to fill out those applications.

Filling out the application or the waiver would be a requirement for receiving a diploma from a public high school, the bill states.

But House Republicans disagreed with the proposal, framing at it as an intrusive mandate into a personal choice for students and families. In a party-line decision, the House Education Committee moved to take out the graduation requirement.

To Democratic supporters — and members of the Senate — the Senate mandate would be a key tool to improve the rate of applications for FAFSA. Many students are unaware that financial aid packages exist to allow them to afford college, supporters argue.

New Hampshire schools vary on FAFSA completion, but many hover between a 60 to 70 percent turn-in rate, according to data from the Federal Student Aid office of the U.S. Department of Education.

“What’s it mean for kids?” Luneau said. “Well, for students who didn’t think their family could afford college, maybe a door opens. And for kids who’d love a high-value credential from (New Hampshire Technical Institute) but didn’t have the money and opportunity to receive a Federal Pell Grant, a hope for a better future.”

Rep. Rick Ladd, the chairman of the House Education Committee, sees the measure as restrictive.

“That’s nothing short of an overreach of government, an invasion of student and family privacy,” the Haverhill Republican said.

Instead, Ladd added, the amended bill will require school districts to share with the Department of Education the number of students who returned the forms. It’s up to schools to encourage students to apply, he argued.

“This should be done anyways; it’s being done in our schools, through parent-teacher conferences, through working with parents after school and explaining this very complicated form,” he said.

The House voted, 203-172, Thursday to pass a version of the bill that stripped out the graduation requirement.

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Proposed Keene police budget increase is driven by pension costs
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After a handful of residents urged the City Council not to approve an increase to the Keene Police Department’s budget for the coming fiscal year, city officials are explaining that they have little choice in the matter.

During a budget hearing last Thursday, eight people expressed concerns about the approximately $275,000 proposed increase to the police budget for fiscal year 2021-22 — from about $7.85 million this year to about $8.1 million next year. Most of them said these extra funds could be better used for social services. Many people around the country have advocated for a similar funding approach over the past year amid widespread calls for criminal justice reform and accountability in policing.

But Keene City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, who recommended the spending plan now under consideration, explained that the proposed increase is not due to expansions within the department. Rather, she said, the money is required for the city to meet its pension obligations.

“The increases in the police department’s budget are not a result of new requests,” Dragon said in an email Tuesday. “The biggest budget driver is from the required employer contribution rates as part of the NH Retirement [S]ystem.”

These rates are set by the retirement system every two years. The city’s contribution for Keene police officers is expected to increase by $242,507, budget documents indicate. The contribution for non-officer employees of the department is set to go up by $29,203, for a combined total of $271,710.

Police Chief Steven Russo said the N.H. Police Standards and Training Council also increased mandatory training hours, following the recommendations of a state commission on police accountability. Required training hours will continue to increase over the next several years, he said.

The Keene Police Department has been working to implement other recommendations, as well, including the use of body and vehicle cameras. This equipment is not included in next year’s budget plan, though the city has proposed setting money aside in case it decides to purchase it. The department is also collaborating with the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College to provide ethics and bias training for officers.

But by and large, Russo said, the department’s operational budget hasn’t changed that much in recent years.

“As long as I have been involved in the command staff here (11 years), our operational budget has not significantly increased,” Russo said in an email Tuesday. “It is normally a flat budget, meaning the same amounts as the year before minus fleet, computer, and attorney cost increases and any one time approved supplements, which are rare for the PD.”

He noted that this year’s proposed budget includes about $7,000 for fleet and computer costs.

Dragon said the department’s personnel budget this year includes $25,000 for a community liaison specialist that was created last year in conjunction with the city’s social host ordinance, which is meant to hold accountable hosts who fail to keep their gatherings under control. The position’s cost is being split with Keene State College, which will reimburse the city for half the expense.

However, overall, the general personnel line of the police budget is down about $37,500, while the department’s health insurance line is down about $10,700. Dragon attributed this to changes in employee health-care plans.

Most of those who commented at last week’s hearing argued that money directed to the police department should be channeled to service providers who help people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues or substance-use disorders.

“When we show that we are supporting an increase in the police budget and not those other services, we are showing that we don’t support the members of our community,” Keene State College student Emma Provencher said at the hearing, “and we’re more likely to criminalize them rather than help them get out of the situations that they’re in. And I don’t think that’s right.”

Other speakers said social service providers could better address some of the issues that often lead to encounters with police.

Matt Pyster, who shared a story last week about a mental health issue he experienced that ended with police intervention, said having an officer present was frightening and only worsened his mental state. Having a professional trained to help people dealing with mental health challenges would have been better, he said.

“I needed a mental health professional who could talk to me without all the baggage that a police officer carries,” he said. “These events happened in [a] different city, but the situation could easily play out here in Keene as well.”

Dragon said that while the speakers’ concerns are worth talking about, she doesn’t like the idea of moving funds from the police department without plans for what comes next.

“These social issues are important issues to discuss,” she said. “However, simply shifting funds doesn’t necessarily achieve an improvement in these services.”

She said one speaker suggested moving funds to the human services department, which provides assistance to community members who are struggling financially. That department’s budget is based on what the city expects it will require to meet the needs of its citizens in the coming year. Simply giving the department more money wouldn’t change the level of service it provides, Dragon said, but would hurt the services provided by the police.

She encouraged concerned residents to learn about what the department does and the level of training officers go through. She also said the department is already meeting or exceeding many of the state commission’s recommendations for law-enforcement accountability.

Dragon added that the department has been in talks with Monadnock Family Services for more than a year about ways to improve mental health services in the area.

“Let us understand where the challenges are specifically in our community and work to support an effort to overcome those challenges,” Dragon said. “Simply shifting funds without a plan will not likely make the difference that people are really seeking and generalizing is unfair and unproductive.”

The City Council is expected to vote on the budget at its meeting on June 17 at 7 p.m.