New Hampshire tries a border raid State says shipyard not really in Maine

October 21, 1990|By Susan Hansen | Susan Hansen,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- King George II may have thought his 174 border decree would end colonial friction over the boundary between New Hampshire and the future state of Maine. But 2 1/2 centuries later, his subjects' heirs are at it again and new border DTC trouble is brewing on the New England coast.

New Hampshire officials are out to prove that the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard -- which lists Kittery, Maine, as its address -- is in New Hampshire. Armed with centuries-old bundles of deeds, maps, charters,treaties and other documents, they are threatening to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The boundary has always been ambiguous," said New Hampshire Attorney General John Arnold, who says that "evidence makes a strong argument" for his state's claim.

The disputed territory is Seavey's Island, located in the Piscataqua River between Maine and New Hampshire and home to the federally owned Portsmouth shipyard. King George's instructions were to set the border down the middle of the Piscataqua, but New Hampshire claims the king's decree was never properly carried out. Maine officials insist their state's control of the island was never subject to discussion and claim they have held jurisdiction since becoming a state in 1820.

But 2 1/2 years ago, one New Hampshire resident who works at the shipyard began to doubt Maine's claim on Seavey's Island and questioned its right to have the federal government withhold Maine state income taxes from his and other New Hampshire shipyard employees' paychecks. The shipyard worker, Victor Bourre, began digging at local libraries, historical societies and county registers and unearthed enough proof to persuade his congressman to take up the cause.

Representative Robert C. Smith, R-N.H., enlisted researchers at the Library of Congress and the National Archives. In early June, after reviewing the investigation, Gov. Judd Gregg announced that New Hampshire would press its claim on Seavey's Island.

The Maine attorney general's office is reviewing the documentation compiled by Mr. Smith's office and plans to conduct additional independent research. But if Maine officials fear the state could lose Seavey's Island, they are not letting on.

"We've seen absolutely nothing . . . that indicates the boundary line should be changed," said Assistant Attorney General Paul Stern. "It's just incredible that anyone would make this argument."

Other Maine boosters are more blunt.

"Face it, the naval shipyard is in Maine," cried the Portland Press Herald in an editorial that accused Mr. Smith of exploiting the issue to bolster his U.S. Senate campaign.

New Hampshire supporters contend such words may be designed to conceal Maine's nervousness.

Mr. Bourre contends that New Hampshire's claim to the shipyard could force Maine to return up to $50 million in back taxes to him and about 4,000 New Hampshire residents employed at the facility. Altogether, New Hampshire shipyard workers contribute about $5.5 million to Maine coffers each year.

"There are 4,000 people that are being unjustly taxed by a state theyare not even working in," he fumed. Since New Hampshire has no state income tax, New Hampshire residents do not have the chance to deduct the funds withheld by Maine from their state tax bill. Mr. Bourre said he paid $2,500 in taxes to Maine last year.

Documentation for what Mr. Bourre says is New Hampshire's airtight claim for control of the shipyard includes a 1635 charter that gives the state's settlers control over all islands in the Piscataqua River, as well as early New Hampshire Deed and Probate records that record the islands as part of New Hampshire.

More recent evidence includes U.S. Navy documents that refer to the shipyard as being in New Hampshire as well as the fact that the New Hampshire seal depicts the USS Raleigh, a ship built at the Portsmouth facility.

Maine officials contend such evidence is meaningless, given what they say has been their state's undisputed control of the shipyard for 170 years.

"The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that long recognition of a boundary line is conclusive evidence of the boundary," said Mr. Stern. Mr. Arnold called such remarks "a political response" and said his office "doesn't have the time or energy to play political games." He insisted that the border dispute "has always been out there," but did not require a resolution until Maine imposed a state income tax in 1969.

New Hampshire officials said they are now waiting for Maine to complete its review of their claim before deciding how to proceed. But Maine officials said they expect New Hampshire will bring the case to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Bourre is also betting on that.

"I know that's where it's going to go, and that's where I want it to go because the evidence is so overwhelming I wouldn't be surprised if it was a 9-0 decision," he said.

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