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home : news : regional December 17, 2014

NH Bill Encourages Preserving Historical Artifacts

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- Broken bits of pottery and other artifacts unearthed during construction might be worthless to builders but tell a story to an archaeologist about New Hampshire's history.

But New Hampshire has no law governing what happens to artifacts unearthed during commercial land developments, and many fear the chance to learn more about the past is slipping away.

State Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Hampton Republican, is hoping to change that by sponsoring legislation that would give communities a say in what happens to the artifacts. House Speaker Terie Norelli, a Portsmouth Democrat, is co-sponsoring the bill because she believes it will help preserve precious historical resources.

Stiles and Norelli say the bill won't stop construction, but state Rep. Dan McGuire, an Epsom Republican, argues it could delay construction or increase costs.

"This bill is more likely to cause the destruction of archaeological treasures than to preserve them because it uses the stick instead of the carrot. If someone discovers an arrowhead on their property, will they inform others about it and risk the loss of property value, or will they hide it and destroy the evidence?" McGuire wrote in an email.

McGuire helped kill the same measure last year but doubts he has the votes to do so again now that the House is under Democratic control.

The bill would enable communities to establish a process to protect and preserve significant archaeological deposits or sites that qualify as historic resources. Planning boards would follow the regulations when reviewing subdivisions and commercial site plans. The planning boards could seek advice from historic or heritage commissions if they exist in the town in applying the regulations.

Cordell Johnston, government affairs counsel for the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said the association, which represents communities, has no position on the bill since it leaves it to each municipality to decide if it wishes to adopt regulations. Johnston said any artifacts found would belong to the property owner. He said the proposal would apply to commercial developments, not to individual homeowners.

"I can't imagine (the proposed law) would authorize a planning board to require the property owner to give up their property," he said.

Johnston said McGuire is correct that it could cost a developer money.

"But that is true of just about any kind of restrictions imposed through site plan and subdivision review," he added.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday morning in the Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee.

Stiles filed the bill because Portsmouth had no say about possible archaeological deposits affected by the $95 million Portwalk development in a historic section of the city's downtown.

In 2009, Cathartes Private Investments of Boston began a three-phase project that includes two hotels, luxury apartments, retail space and an underground garage. During the first phase, Parade Mall was demolished and a hotel was erected. No federal money was involved in the project, so a federal regulation requiring an archaeological evaluation was not triggered.

But federal funding was included in the financing of the second phase and the developer hired a local archaeological firm to evaluate the site and unearth artifacts. The same firm searched the site of the final phase in December. In both instances, old pottery and other artifacts were found -- some possibly several hundred years old.

Cathartes spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne said the most interesting piece was a bottle belonging to Joshua Wentworth, a New Hampshire patriot in the colonial era. It was found in a privy, which is where people threw trash. Finding the bottle in the privy may mean Wentworth's house was on the site in the 1770s, Tranchemontagne said.

He said the company followed all the rules in building on the site, but there was confusion about what needed to be done and who had jurisdiction. He noted that the area had been disturbed many times over the years by past developments.

"For us, the most important thing is to have a clear set of rules. We want to make sure it's clear. Obviously, it hasn't been over the past few years," he said.

State Archaeologist Richard Boisvert said most of what archaeologists have found is not museum quality, but even mundane things can help tell the story of a time if pieced together and put into its proper context.

"If it doesn't have meaning, it's just a rock, just a piece of broken pottery," he said.

Tranchemontagne said the Portwalk developers plan to display artifacts found at the construction site.

"We're very open. We want these artifacts, particularly if they have historical significance, to be seen," he said.

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