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Poet Frost's Picture-Postcard Town Longs for Somnolent Past : New Hampshire: Derry is on the ropes, battered by a population explosion and taxpayer rebellion.

October 16, 1994|NIKI KAPSAMBELIS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

DERRY, N.H. — Some people just can't stand success. Sadly, this picture-postcard town is an example.

Home of poet Robert Frost and America's first man in space, Alan B. Shepard Jr., it once seemed that Derry had everything going for it. But today it has risen from its agrarian past to become what one cynical official calls "the duplex capital of New Hampshire."

In fact, during the construction boom of the 1980s it became sorely overbuilt. New residents wanted schools for their children and they wanted them now. As a result, taxes went up. Then the taxpayers rebelled and the town is still trying to cope with that rebellion.

Before Shepard became a space hero 33 years ago and Derry started calling itself "Spacetown, U.S.A.," this picturesque countryside was ruled by dairy farms and the fact that Frost once lived here and taught at the high school.

But past glories largely are forgotten.

The farms that marketed dairy products under the trade name of Hood are long since closed. The name is still evident in the Hood Commons mini-mall and the Hood Memorial Junior High School, which is overflowing with new students.

Across Route 28 from the farm where Frost lived, the setting of his poem "Mending Wall," is the Robert Frost Motor Inn and the Promises To Keep restaurant and function hall--a line purloined from a Frost verse.

The house where Shepard grew up was auctioned off in 1989.

But evidence of the 1980s construction craze is everywhere. Fast-food restaurants have sprouted alongside clapboard farmhouses, and housing developments have taken the place of dairy cows.

Derry, now the state's largest town and fourth-largest population center, is infused with condominium and apartment dwellers who commute south every morning down an interstate named for Shepard. More than 8,000 Derry residents commute 30 minutes or more every day, and almost 6,800 commute out of state.

And everywhere there are those Derry duplexes--some carefully landscaped, others boarded up and standing in lawns gone to seed.

"It was growing like crazy," said Fred Tompkins, a town councilor and member of the Planning Board. "They came here in droves. . . . You could build apartments anyplace, and they proceeded to do that."

The duplexes house the young couples who represent one of Derry's most pressing problems: unremitting population growth.

In 1980, the town's population was 18,875. Today, it hovers around 31,000 and shows no sign of letting up.

Since 1990, there have been 600 births among Derry families. As School Supt. David Brown says, that represents an entire school--and yet, facing skyrocketing taxes, voters cut $2.4 million from the school district budget this year.

A court-ordered revaluation cut the town's tax base by one-third in 1993, forcing a 64% hike in the tax rate.

In 1980 the tax rate was $23.70 per $1,000 of property value. In 1990 it had risen to $25.20. Three years later it was $39.90.

Much of the lost tax base was in business property and the condominiums, which dropped in value during the recession. The result was to shift more of the tax burden onto single-family homeowners, some of whom saw their bills jump thousands of dollars just weeks before taxes were due.

"Everything went to hell in a handbasket," Tompkins said. "We've done too much, too fast."

This summer the Floyd School, a building nearly a century old, was closed to serve as storage for abandoned band instruments and athletic equipment. Elementary and middle-school children no longer will have music, art or sports programs. Students who used to attend Floyd will be squeezed into other schools, some of which already are exceeding capacity by hundreds of children.

Ironically, the Floyd School closed once before, during the 1980s, because the town built a new school and didn't need all the classroom space.

"I believe the issue here is simply that there is no more room at the inn in Derry," said David Jack, assistant schools superintendent.

In an effort to crack down on growth, the Planning Board has said it will not approve any new subdivisions, at least not until the town catches up. One developer already has sued to challenge the policy.

The police force has increased from 28 officers in 1980 to 47 in 1993. Without that increase, Police Chief Edward Garone said, "I think it would be like the Wild West around here."

The town's evolution has dizzied those who lived in Derry prior to the boom.

Dick Bergeron, owner of Spacetown Auto Body, remembers when his garage faced a pasture.

"This was all cows," he said of the body shop he opened in 1961. "Every once in a while, they'd break the fence and come in here."

Today, he points to the houses around him that have been lost to taxes.

Bergeron, 57, has lived in Derry all his life. He comes from a different era.

"I knew everybody," Bergeron said. But like other longtime residents, he's finding that's not true anymore.

Ralph Bonner, 77, remembers how traffic used to be tied up on Route 102 each day by Hood cows crossing the road to be milked.

Today, traffic jams in Derry no longer are caused by cows, but by the cars of so many newcomers traveling on a road system that never expanded to accommodate them.

Bonner is president of the town's historical society, headquartered on the second floor of a downtown firehouse. He sorts through remnants of Derry's past--photographs of Shepard in his spacesuit, rusting cowbells, a small press that embosses the seal of the Derry Grange.

A deliveryman walked in and asked him how to get to Brian Avenue.

Bonner, who has lived in Derry since 1950, was stumped. There are too many new streets in town.

"Now, it's really a city," he said. "They should call it a city to keep people from moving in."

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