NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
Finding the Free Town in the Free State
By Tim Condon • 2/18/04
Free State Project Porcupines all support Jason Sorens' excellent idea: Why not geographically concentrate the (relatively) small number of liberty-lovers in the United States, and gain freedom through the power of the vote? It's a great idea, offered at the right time, and is coming to fruition, with the migration already beginning.
But wait! If it's a neat idea to gain political power through choosing a single low-population state for liberty-lovers to call home...why not pick a low-population town in that same state where Porcupines can congregate? Call it an "early demonstration project." An informal group within the FSP agree: It's another great idea, and one that will make for another excellent adventure. Now, after months of debate, research, and two exploratory trips to New Hampshire, the Free Town has been announced. (NOTE: The "Free Town Project" is an informal group of renegade Porcupines ; ). We don't have any "official" connection with the Free State Project, Inc. other that being members, nor does the Free State Project officially endorse us or our group.)
Preliminary research took the form of searching New Hampshire to find small-population towns without zoning. The lack of zoning was considered to be a crucial attribute, second only to low population itself. Why? Because zoning might be used as a statist weapon by existing local political powers to block any large-scale immigration of Porcupines into the town. In addition, the existence of zoning suggests a "busybody-friendly atmosphere" among the current populace. We wanted no part of any such place.
The initial list had 21 towns without zoning, with populations ranging from 86 in Ellsworth to 4,196 in Haverhill. Other variables were introduced and debated online. Additional subjects included the following, all of which were discussed and argued at great length:
- Weather patterns (bitterly cold winters in towns "north of the notches" versus the less rigorous temperatures in the southern part of the Free State).
- Ready access to an Interstate highway for quick trips to nearby population centers.
- Availability of amenities in or near the town, such as grocery stores, restaurants, department stores, movie theaters, etc.
- Distance from larger population centers with their more extensive amenities, as well as employment opportunities.
- Availability and cost of land (Ellsworth, for instance, had only one parcel for sale, and it was purchased before we could make our move; other areas, such as Roxbury, had no land for sale at all).
Eventually the potential Free Towns resolved down to a few promising survivors: Dalton (pop. 854), Ellsworth (pop. 86), Grafton (pop. 971), Groton (pop. 341), Lempster (pop 1,036), and Orford (pop. 1,039). In 2003 two adventurous Florida Porcupines, Jay Denonville and Zack Bass, took an "exploratory trip" to New Hampshire, driving all the way to New England and back within a two week period. They were able to visit and examine various potential Free Town sites, including Orford, Dalton, and others.
Another exploratory trip was launched in early February, 2004. This time Porcupines Tim Condon and Zack Bass flew to New Hampshire from Florida, and had help from resident Free Staters in exploring. Also present was Robert Hull, who drove up from New Jersey to join us. Those in New Hampshire who volunteered to help included Bill Alleman, Wade Bartlett, Tom Kershaw (a former NHLP chairman), and Tony Lekas (we ended up spending the entire three days with Tony driving us around—bless you, Tony—while Tom Kershaw also helped with his van on our first day; we failed to make contact with Wade Bartlett and Bill Alleman, but hope to remedy that on our next trip). In addition to the main group of Tim Condon, Zack Bass, Bob Hull, and Tony Lekas, we were able to share time, talk, food, and drink with others, including Tony's wonderful wife Alicia, Keene resident and LP activist Jim Maynard, Connecticut Porcupine Tony Stelik, Texan Chuck Geshlider, NH Porcupine Mike Lorrey, and current New Hampshire LP chairman John Babiarz and his wife Rosalie.
Areas that we looked over as possible Free Town locations over the three-day period (of little sleep and lots of traveling) included the following:
- Roxbury (in the southwestern portion of the state, outside Keene, but where there was no land for sale).
- Lempster (where we looked over an old stagecoach hotel that came with lots of land, and talked with the town clerk, who said that the locals were "thinking about" instituting zoning).
- Grafton (where LP activists John and Rosalie Babiarz moved to after fleeing their home in Connecticut when a state income tax was instituted in the 1980's).
- Bristol (which wasn't on our Free Town radar, but which had a large property that was being considered for a freedom-oriented project by FSP member Bruce Hartgers, who asked us to "check it out").
- Ellsworth (where in the last election a total of 39 voted...with four of them voting Libertarian).
In the end, the four of us who spent the entire three days together—Tony Lekas, Bob Hull, Zack Bass, and me—agreed on the choice of the Free Town: It was to be Grafton.
Upon arriving back in Florida we made the announcement to those waiting to hear the results of the "Blue Floridian Tour" (blue because we turned blue in the winter weather...but that's another story). Perhaps predictably, immediately the complaining, moaning, second-guessing, and arguing began. "Why Grafton!?!" was the refrain. "You musta had a sales job done on you by Babiarz!!!" And of course everyone had a favorite Free Town that they were absolutely sure we should have chosen. "We wuz robbed!" some of the disappointed Free Town partisans yelled. It was amazing. It was like a microcosmic replay of the Free State Project vote itself!
Grafton, it must be said, is in the proverbial "middle of nowhere." It has two general stores and two gas stations, one of which is out of business and for sale. And that's about it. There are no restaurants, no drug stores, no movie theaters, no Wal-Marts, no fast food outlets, no dry cleaners, no doctors, and no dentists. And it's a half hour drive to the nearest Interstate highway. So the "Why Grafton?" question deserves an answer. As it turned out, the decision wasn't hard to make. All four of us to quickly and unanimously agreed on our choice.
The town of Grafton lies in the "town" of Grafton (which is like a county in the rest of the country), which contains about 40 square miles. The population (now, as opposed to the information we originally had on the list above) is about 1,100, with a voting list of 767. It's nicely located, about midway up the state, but "south of the notches" so the winters won't be as cold as they would be in the sparsely settled northern areas. It has some beautiful forested hills, and even a couple of "mountains" of about 2,000 feet. It also has plenty of water, with a number of small streams and brooks meandering through the area, along with a couple of lakes known locally as Grafton Pond and Kilton Pond.
Grafton is about a 40 minute drive from the population center of Lebanon on the Free State's western border (and is designed, apparently, to suck all the money out of heavily-taxed and regulated Vermont next door; we heard about the happy hordes of Vermont citizens who come across the Connecticut River border to eagerly spend their money in a no-sales-tax state). The smaller town of Enfield is a shorter distance to the west from Grafton; and the quaint, slightly larger towns of Danbury and Bristol (which sits on the shores of the beautiful Newfound Lake) are to the east. The state capitol, Concord, is about a 45 minute drive to the south.
One of the things we hoped to measure, as best we could, was the existing "political atmosphere" in the various potential Free Towns. In Lempster, for instance, the town clerk told us (apparently approvingly) that the imposition of zoning is being considered. In Keene, near Roxbury, we talked to Jim Maynard. Former LP Chairman Tom Kershaw filled us in about the parts of the state he was familiar with. And in Grafton we were able to talk to John Babiarz, who had run for Governor on the LP ticket in the last election, and in the process became friends with current Republican Governor Craig Benson (who has appointed Babiarz to several statewide advisory positions).
In Grafton we sat with the Babiarzes in the ambulance/EMT/volunteer fire department building and talked for some time, during which we peppered them with questions about their town. "What's the political atmosphere here?" I asked. People like to be left alone, and they don't like taxes, bureaucracy, big government, or rampant regulations in general, John and Rosalie told us. What about enforcement of victimless crime laws, we wanted to know. Harassing and arresting people who are bothering no one is not high on the list of the town police chief (whom we met, along with his wife, when they came through while we were sitting around talking); in addition, the police chief is an elected position in Grafton, so if power were abused, he could be voted out of office.
What about the town selectmen who politically run the 40 square miles of the "town" of Grafton? Said John and Rosalie, one is somewhat with us, another is not with us at all, and still another is very friendly to our ideas. I asked what they could do with 200 to 400 activist Porcupines moving into the town over the next year or two. "Give me just 25 and we could win some elections," John predicted. How could that be, you ask? It turns out that John has a base of support of about 125 in the town. With 400 typically voting, it takes about 200 to win an election. If 25 Porcupines were politically active residents, they could be expected to positively influence at least two or three potential voters each...in which case John (or presumably another Porcupine) would be over 200 votes...just about enough to win.
What about the Planning Board that exists in Grafton? we asked. Unlike other venues, it appears the planning board in Grafton isn't out of control. In fact there is no requirement for a certificate of occupancy, the "permission slip" that local bureaucrats in other towns often give out (or withhold, if they don't like you) to let you live in your own structure on your own property. In addition, the Planning Board is an elective body, just like the town selectmen, so that an abusive, busybody board could soon be cleansed of aspiring power-trippers.
What about the relatively long drive—about a half hour either to the east or to the west—to get to an Interstate? Undeniably, this is one of the trade-offs. But John and Rosalie told stories of easily and repeatedly driving the 45 minutes back and forth to the state capitol to the south. "You get used to it," they told us.
I also peppered them with questions about how long it took to get to the closest doctor, dentist, dry cleaner, movie theater, restaurant, Wal-Mart, and other signs of civilization. The consensus was anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on what you need and where you want to go. Lebanon, 40 minutes to the west, is next to Hanover, the home of Dartmouth University and one of the top medical centers in the world (which is being expanded over the next two years, adding about 3,000 new jobs in the area). Concord, a town of 45,000 to the south, has everything most people could want.
Was there land for sale, we wanted to know, after being disappointed by some of the potential towns that simply had little or nothing available on the market. There's over 40 square miles in the town of Grafton, we were told, and on much of it "there's nothing." As a result, "there's lots of land for sale around here," said John.
I also wanted to know about jobs, even though many Porcupines own their own businesses in the computer or Internet industries. As might be expected, there aren't many jobs in Grafton, especially with the small population of 1,100 spread out over 40 square miles. To get to jobs many will need to commute to Lebanon or Concord. Pretty long commutes, admittedly, especially for someone like me who hates to drive...but in the end, doable for liberty in our lifetime.
It was obvious to all of us that we couldn't have everything we desired in potential Free Town: Low population, no zoning, no planning board, no certificates of occupancy, a liberty-oriented populace, existing resident libertarians, economic and cultural amenities, jobs, land for sale, easy access to an Interstate, close-by population centers, etc. We had to make trade-offs. It is a tribute to Grafton that when all four of us put our heads together, it wasn't even close. The presence of John and Rosalie Babiarz, respected long-time residents who are already activists for individual liberty, had much to do with it. But the general feelings of Grafton residents—unsupportive of bureaucracy, desirous of being left alone, live-and-let-live attitudes, hostile toward zoning, increased taxes, and other schemes—also had much to do with it. When we asked if it might be possible to de-fund the local government school system in favor of free market alternatives, John and Rosalie told us there had already been talk about the possibilities. Similarly, for the past several years a resolution making Grafton a "U.N. Free Zone" has been presented during town elections. Each year it fails, but by fewer votes, and will appear on the ballot this year in March. Last year? It failed by only 5 votes.
Finally, I put it to John and Rosalie Babiarz: "Do you have any hesitation about a bunch of wild libertarians invading your quiet town? Would you have any second thoughts about Grafton being named the Free Town within the Free State Project? Should we choose Grafton as the Free Town?" Rosalie answered first, and immediately: "Absolutely!" When the same question was put to John, he smiled and said, "Sure! Why not?"
And so we're off to the races. Join us in Grafton. The Free Town.
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NOTE: Prior to leaving New Hampshire we asked John Babiarz whether he knew any real estate agents working in Grafton. He said yes, there's a couple who are home-schooling their children (!) who live in Grafton. The father, David Walthour, is a real estate agent in nearby Lebanon. When I called him at home, I spoke to his wife, who said she had heard of the Free State Porcupines. "It's great!" she said, "I can't wait till you get here!" If you're interested in owning property and/or living in liberty in the Free Town, you can contact David at 603-643-2039, extension 19, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.