New Hampshire Tax Revolt Stirs Up a Yankee Maelstrom

Like the anti-British rebels of Colonial America, people here along the rocky New Hampshire seacoast despise most kinds of taxes.

But one tax rankles so much that some residents have practically started another American Revolution - complete with tea chucked into a local harbor and talk of tyranny by a foreign power.

The reviled tax is one that the neighboring state of Maine levies on 1,371 New Hampshire residents who work at a US Navy shipyard. The sprawling complex sits on an island in the steely-blue Piscataqua River, which defines the border between New Hampshire and Maine.

Maine has long claimed the island as its own. But now New Hampshire wants it - mostly so its residents don't have pay the income tax.

The dispute is part of a border bicker that dates from 1679. It pits New Hampshirites' antitax fervor against the stolidity of Mainers - who've weathered a thousand Nor'easter storms and figure they can wait out this one. It could be settled this year: New Hampshire plans to ask the US Supreme Court to decide the matter.

From the New Hampshire perspective, the George Washington of this struggle is Victor Bourre, a trim man with Paul Newman eyes who recently retired from the shipyard. He's been on this crusade for 12 years - and has refused to pay taxes to Maine for four. Last week he even heaved a giant tea bag into the river as followers chanted, "No taxation without representation!"

What really riles Mr. Bourre and others is that Maine taxes shipyard workers' total family income. So if a yard-worker's spouse has a job in New Hampshire, Maine gets a chunk of that paycheck too. Maine nets $5 million to $7 million a year from the tax.

The dispute takes on even greater significance in this era of base closures. If the yard were ever to close, the island might be developed into a resort or park - generating a tax windfall for the state that has rightful claim.

Bourre runs his campaign from a tiny gray suburban house with an above-ground pool out back. Inside, stacked in neat, foot-high piles on the dining room table, is 12 years' worth of research - maps, deeds, and titles from musty archive rooms in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

As he sees it, Maine never did own the islands in the Piscataqua. Quoting from a 1770 deed signed by King George III of England, he says New Hampshire was originally defined as "including the river."

"That means the whole river," he says. "You can't go wrong if you go by the king's words."

Several weeks ago he found a piece of evidence that he says "will eat Maine alive." It's an official record from 1652 that defines the border of Kittery, Maine, as beginning "beyond the Piscataqua river" - not in the middle of the river, as Maine claims.

But not everyone is as passionate - or as convinced - as Bourre is. On Badger Island - another island that would switch states if New Hampshire wins - bait-and-tackle-shop proprietor Susan Allen says, "They've been going at this for 200 years. I tend to think nothing's going to change."

Told by this impertinent reporter that Bourre is sure he's got proof, she says with a knowing smile, "They're always sure, dear."

Even the New Hampshire attorney general's office, which is preparing the case, is cautious about relying on centuries-old documents. "Courts view maps cautiously," warns Deputy Attorney General Steve Houran.

As for Mainers, most aren't worried about losing part of their state. They say possession is 9/10s of the law, noting that to get into the shipyard you have to drive through Maine. The yard also applies to Maine for all its permits.

Never mind what the king said 300 years ago, says Maine Attorney General Andrew Ketterer. "It all comes down to a big pile of little things. And that's how we're going to win."

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