Will Swasey Parkway be closed to traffic? Exeter counsel weighs in on dueling votes

EXETER — The recently approved citizens’ petition to keep Swasey Parkway open to one-way traffic may not be a roadblock to town efforts made over the last year to close a portion of the popular park to vehicle traffic.

The Select Board is inviting legal counsel to an upcoming meeting to discuss whether Dwane Staples citizens’ petition approved at the March 15 Town Meeting is legally binding. The petition aimed to reverse course from a 2022 Town Meeting vote that approved the closure and directed the town to amend the park’s trust in court to make it happen.

Town Manager Russ Dean told the Select Board last week that town counsel feels because the probate judge had already signed off on the closure prior to the 2023 vote, that supersedes the recent petition.

“The town counsel’s opinion of this particular issue is that since the road discontinuance process was completed before the vote on Article 31, the voters’ support of that article on March 15 has no legal effect,” Dean said at last Monday’s Select Board meeting.

However, board members said they still want more information and to hear from town counsel directly.

“I just want to make sure that if there’s an interest from townspeople that want to ask questions, we might want to… have town’s counsel here to answer questions the best we can,” said Selectwoman Nancy Belanger at last Monday’s meeting.

Closing the parkway to traffic to improve safety has been discussed for years. It picked up steam after the Select Board received positive feedback for closing the parkway to vehicle traffic with the aid of the governor’s emergency order during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board decided to put forward a Town Meeting warrant article in 2022 asking if voters wanted to close a portion of the parkway from Water Street to the gazebo to make it pedestrian-only and allow two-way traffic from the gazebo to Newfields Road.

The article was approved by a vote of 1,819-1,083.

The approved article directed the town to gain approval from the New Hampshire attorney general’s Division of Charitable Trust Unit and the Rockingham County Probate Court to make the closure of the road a reality.

The reason the town had to go to court is because the parkway and the town land it sits on were both gifts from entrepreneur and philanthropist Ambrose Swasey. It was bestowed to the town via a trust which stipulates the property be used “solely for park purposes and the roadway therein open to pleasure vehicles.”

A judge signed off on the request to close the roadway to traffic Feb. 3.

Staples, a Parkway trustee, said he put forth a citizens’ petition to reverse course because he felt closing the parkway will affect many of the events that take place there, and accessibility to the parkway for people with disabilities.

His article was approved by a vote of 925-637.

Staples said he is happy his citizens’ petition passed but wants to hear from town counsel.

“I’m in hopes that we can have a definitive answer from counsel and that we can move forward with a plan that is suitable for everybody,” he said.

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