You Asked, We Answered: Can You Get Away with Murder in N.H.'s Unincorporated Towns?

Sep 8, 2017

As part of our continuing series Only in NH, in which listeners ask questions about the state and their communities, we sometimes hear from people much closer to our newsroom.

In this case, we got a question from NHPR's own Digital Director, Rebecca Lavoie. (And we should note, Rebecca's also a true crime author, so that may have influenced her curiosity!) 

She asked:

What's up with unincorporated towns? Can you break the law there and not get into trouble? And who organizes things in these towns?

So to get to the bottom of this I decided to go to what I'm going to call the 'mack-daddy' of unincorporated places in New Hampshire: Coos county.

There are twenty-five unincorporated places in the state, and twenty-three of those are in Coos county. So if you look at a map it's like a fourth of that county is just unincorporated - like where the Wildlings live north of The Wall. And it turns out they're not the perfect place for the perfect crime.

"Oh no. You cannot break the law," says Jennifer Fish. She's the County Administrator in Coos, and she told me that New Hampshire's unincorporated places are governed by the state police and also some local police departments and the sheriff's department. So you can't break the law there, and yes, you'll even get pulled over for speeding.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

When I explain all of this to Rebecca, she says that while it's "a bummer" to hear, "I did kind of figure that was probably the case  - you would have heard about it if you could just commit a murder there not get arrested."

"But," she adds, "It doesn't really answer my question of who is in charge of these towns - who's running things?"

It's the county government that oversees the organization of those places, so it's basically the three county commissioners acting as selectmen. They oversee the budget-approved timber taxes, and the county also has a planning board for the unincorporated places that meets on a monthly basis.

"All right, but what about day-to-day stuff? What about water and trash collection and sewers and the stuff that that you would expect to get from your town?"

Rebecca's not wrong to wonder about this - because as it turns out, incorporated places do have to resource all of these services because they don't have any of their own.

This means homeowners pay a fee to the county so that nearby towns will provide schools, firefighters, ambulances, dumps, and other services.

But that doesn't mean it's more expensive to live in unincorporated areas. In fact,  it can end up working out pretty well for homeowners, because that fee that they're paying to the county is based on things like usage estimates, and how many kids are going to public school in a given year from that place.

For example, if an unincorporated town has a population of three dozen retired people and they receive timber taxes, their revenue may exceed their expenses. So some taxpayers in unincorporated places don't pay property tax at all.

When I tell Rebecca this fact, she's impressed.

"Actually my mind is blown by that. Because as you know, property taxes are really high in New Hampshire. Because of the way our whole education funding system works, people complain about them a lot in small towns. So it sounds like these places are like tax havens...sort of like the dream in New Hampshire -  you get to live somewhere and not pay property taxes. Kind of a sweet deal."

She's right...partially. There's at least one instance in which things get a little bit wacky. 

Want to hear the rest of this story? Click the audio link above and learn what happened when one tiny unincorporated town briefly considered becoming an official town.

Map: New Hampshire's Unincorporated Places

Do you have a question about New Hampshire or a quirk of your community? Submit it to Only in NH right here

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