Claremont business owners balk at special assessment for Washington Street paving

Owner Joe Helie, left, talks to Gary Roberts about a call from a customer at Helie’s Carpets in Claremont, N.H., on Thursday, June 13, 2024. Helie and other business owners on Washington Street received letters from the city informing them of a “special assessment” it is considering that would require businesses to pay for a portion of a $1.2 million paving and road improvement project, based on the percentage of the street’s daily traffic they were determined to be responsible for through a traffic study. Helie has owned his business since 1987 and when the street was repaved previously, he said, “I didn’t have to pay anything.” (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Owner Joe Helie, left, talks to Gary Roberts about a call from a customer at Helie’s Carpets in Claremont, N.H., on Thursday, June 13, 2024. Helie and other business owners on Washington Street received letters from the city informing them of a “special assessment” it is considering that would require businesses to pay for a portion of a $1.2 million paving and road improvement project, based on the percentage of the street’s daily traffic they were determined to be responsible for through a traffic study. Helie has owned his business since 1987 and when the street was repaved previously, he said, “I didn’t have to pay anything.” (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Alex Driehaus

Owner Joe Helie walks around the building with his dog Georgie at Helie’s Carpets in Claremont, N.H., on Thursday, June 13, 2024. Helie said the city vastly overestimated his contribution to daily traffic. “I don’t get 59 vehicles in here,” he said of his quiet parking lot. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Owner Joe Helie walks around the building with his dog Georgie at Helie’s Carpets in Claremont, N.H., on Thursday, June 13, 2024. Helie said the city vastly overestimated his contribution to daily traffic. “I don’t get 59 vehicles in here,” he said of his quiet parking lot. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A letter from the city about a proposed special assessment sits on the counter at Helie’s Carpets in Claremont, N.H., on Thursday, June 13, 2024. Claremont will hold a special council meeting to discuss the proposed assessment on June 19 at 6 p.m. at the Claremont Savings Bank Community Center. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A letter from the city about a proposed special assessment sits on the counter at Helie’s Carpets in Claremont, N.H., on Thursday, June 13, 2024. Claremont will hold a special council meeting to discuss the proposed assessment on June 19 at 6 p.m. at the Claremont Savings Bank Community Center. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Traffic flows past businesses on Washington Street in Claremont, N.H., on Thursday, June 13, 2024. A traffic study conducted between June 2022 and June 2023 estimated that the street sees on average 30,000 daily trips. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Traffic flows past businesses on Washington Street in Claremont, N.H., on Thursday, June 13, 2024. A traffic study conducted between June 2022 and June 2023 estimated that the street sees on average 30,000 daily trips. (Valley News - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Alex Driehaus

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 06-17-2024 7:17 PM

Modified: 06-18-2024 6:02 PM


CLAREMONT — Some Washington Street property owners who received letters from the city earlier this month explaining the special assessment they may have to pay to cover a portion of the estimated $1.2 million it will cost to repave the four-lane road are not happy with city officials and question the data.

The city’s special assessment proposal for paving 2.3 miles of Washington Street — from the Puksta Bridge east to Roberts Hill Road — would raise about $900,000, or about 75% of the estimated cost. The city will pay the balance. The assessments would be paid over several years.

The bid the city received for the work is valid until July 1, 2025.

The City Council will hold a public hearing on Wednesday and could decide that evening or later on whether to approve the assessments. Last year, the council approved City Manager YoshiManale’s recommendation to amend a city ordinance on special assessments, which are allowed under state law for infrastructure repairs.

The letter to business owners from the city states that the law allows special assessments to be levied “to fund specific projects that benefit a particular group of property owners.”

But Don Avery, owner of Avery Insurance at the corner of Washington Street and Parsons Avenue, said the business owners are not the only ones who may benefit.

“Every taxpayer in the city of Claremont uses this road; all of them,” Avery said. “Why are they making the business owners on Washington Street pay for it?”

The city’s assessing department, which was charged with calculating the assessment for each property based on a traffic study, found that there are 61 properties on the street, which is also known as N.H. Route 11-103. The street runs from Newport to the east and continues through Claremont’s main commercial district. It becomes Broad Street at the North Street intersection, just before the city’s downtown sector.

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Many Washington Street businesses are corporately owned, such as Walmart, McDonald’s, Auto Zone, Home Depot and Runnings, while others have landlords that do not have a business on the premises. There are several small businesses, the owners of which also own the properties the businesses occupy.

As he filled a car engine with oil, Roger Hofmann, owner of Mainway Service garage, said the assessment will be a cost reflected in his prices, which he suspects others might do as well.

“I can’t pay it so I will just have to pass it on to my customers,” said Hofmann, whose garage has been on Washington Street for 40 years. “What else can I do? I think everyone who shops on Washington Street will end up paying for this.”

The city’s amended ordinance removed the requirement that at least half of the affected property owners had to sign a petition from the city manager seeking a special assessment.

The new wording allows the city manager to propose an assessment without support from property owners. The council would have the final say on whether to approve any assessments.

When the council voted 6-2 in October to amend the ordinance, Manale said Washington Street would be an ideal example of where the special assessment could be implemented.

“That is a substantial cost,” Manale said last September. “The city does not have that kind of money. It is a very expensive project. A special assessment to share those costs, which benefit everyone on that street, would help.”

Mayor Dale Girard said he is not convinced the assessment is the right approach and he can understand the business owners’ viewpoint.

“I am having a tough time swallowing this,” Girard said. “What is the benefit to the businesses? Will it mean they will see more customers?”

Properties in special assessment districts can be apportioned based on several criteria including “square footage, front-footage, increased value, traffic generation, or other impact generation factors, or any combination thereof,” the special assessment law states.

The letters, mailed the first week of June, explained a traffic study that was conducted by the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission between June 2022 and June 2023.

It said the traffic flow of about 37,000 cars a day between Home Depot and North Street was subject of a three-part study that looked at something called “connected vehicle data to produce average daily traffic counts.

The method uses location data from GPS-connected mobile devices and vehicles, and calibrates and validates it with physical count data, the letter states.

Using data collected in 61 unique “business zones,” the analysis provided average daily trips that start or end in each business’ zone, which resulted in estimates of the number of trips each business is responsible for, the letter states.

The letters were then individualized to include the amount each business will be assessed.

Assessor Stephan Hamilton said the largest assessment is for Walmart at $204,000.

The Market Basket plaza has a $139,000 assessment, Hannafords $80,000, Home Depot $86,000 and Runnings $46,000. Hamilton also said private homeowners on the street are not being assessed.

Avery, of Avery Insurance, took issue with the traffic count used in the formula to calculate his assessment of $1,200.

“They told me I have 39 cars a day,” Avery said. “I have cameras. I have four cars a day on average. I would be a millionaire if I had 39 cars a day.”

Luke Avery, Don’s son, said the city is counting the cars going to the residences on Parsons Avenue.

He agreed that the street needs paving, but said: “It shouldn’t be coming out of our pocket.”

He gave an example of someone traveling from Newport to an appointment at a business in downtown Claremont and asked why that business isn’t being charged.

“We want to work with the city for a solution on this.”

Joe Helie, who has operated Helie’s Carpet on Washington Street since 1987, also said the traffic study, which said he has 59 cars a day at his business, is inaccurate.

“I bet I don’t get 59 cars a week if I’m lucky,” Helie said. “This should be part of our taxes. I pay enough and now they want $1,800 from me to pave the road.”

Gary Roberts, officer manager at Helie’s said Monday that if that many cars were coming to the business, they would be “hiring 10 people and adding 5,000 square feet to the building.

Roberts said Washington Street may have some large box stores but also a lot of “mom and pop” places that already pay a lot in taxes.

“What are we paying taxes for,” Roberts wondered. “The city spent $4 million to redo Pleasant Street and they didn’t charge anyone on that street.”

The public hearing on Wednesday begins at 6 p.m. in the community center on South Street.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.