Parting of Waters Stirs Two-State Feud

Tax battle between New Hampshire and Maine calls for Moses-like solution - letter from Portsmouth

TAXES are so repugnant to some people in New Hampshire that they are willing to re-draw Maine's map to clear the air, even if that means asking the United States Supreme Court to sharpen its cartographic pencils. At the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, on an island in the Piscataqua River, which separates Maine and New Hampshire, some 4,000 New Hampshirites are hopping mad.

Maine officials say the shipyard is in their state and that all workers must pay Maine income tax.

Over the bridge in New Hampshire, an income-taxless state with the motto "Live Free or Die," residents say their neighbor doesn't have both oars in the water.

"Why do they call it the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard? Because it's in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, plain and simple," says feisty Victor Bourre, the local anti-tax hero.

After many years, the legislature is finally listening to his argument.

Last week it passed a bill recognizing the shipyard as part of New Hampshire and directed the state attorney general to pursue the case to the US Supreme Court, where all state boundary issues are decided.

In Washington, US Sen. Robert Smith (R) of New Hampshire says he plans to introduce legislation that would require the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to stop withholding taxes until this whole matter is settled.

For the past three years Mr. Bourre has spent nights and weekends dusting off cobwebs in musty New England libraries, searching for clues among the ancient texts and odd spellings of colonial documents.

He says he has found a document - the original state charter from 1635 - which the Supreme Court missed in 1976 when it drew a fishing boundary between the two states.

At his modest home in Dover, N.H., (a town next to Portsmouth, with lower property taxes), Bourre spreads out this original charter and heaps of other evidence on his olive-green kitchen table.

The evidence: a two-foot stack of photocopied historical documents - crisscrossed by a yellow high-lighter; employment affidavits, and dog-eared programs from ship-christenings. Even the official stationery says "Portsmouth, NH."

It's plain as day, says Bourre: the boundary between Maine and New Hampshire runs "through the mouth of Portsmouth Harbor and up the middle of the river."

Question is: Which river?

Bourre, harnessing his historical imagination, insists its the narrow, "Crooked Lane" portion of the Piscataqua (pronounced pis-KA-ta-kwa], which would have been the only navigable river back then.

Maine, however, insists it's the wider portion of the river, running under the bridge that joins the two states.

There is only one thing the people of Kittery and Portsmouth agree on: the unfairness of the "spousal tax." This provides that, if you live and work in New Hampshire but your spouse works in Maine, you both pay income tax to Maine. (Maine nets more than $9.1 million a year in income tax from nonresidents.) Maine refuses to repeal this until New Hampshire agrees to increase size of lobsters than can be legally caught.

Sound like a tempest in a teapot?


But with Bourre leading an angry throng of taxpayers down the streets of Portsmouth chanting, "No taxation without representation!" (never mind that they don't want representation), the tempest is boiling over.

True to a New England colonial spirit, the angry mob threw tea [bags] into the river.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.