Rye on the Rocks: Whose Coastline is it, anyway?

Alex Herlihy

It is true that there is a new exhibit at the Rye Town Museum (next to the Library) called “Rye on the Rocks: Stories from 400 years on the Land”, and it is true that this exhibit makes use of some of the best photos from our collection and also tells some of the stories and describes some events over our four centuries here, huddled along the rocky shore, but the current stories that are emerging from Our Town are just as intriguing and filled with drama as any from the past. Witness the recent five-hour and 30-minute ZBA hearing on Rye Harbor development. Stories like this just keep unfolding and need to be told.

We do welcome you to visit the museum on Saturdays from 10-2 and Wednesdays from  2-5, and you will find the dredging of Rye harbor story that Herb Drake talked about at the recent ZBA marathon, not to mention the dramatic and somewhat comical story of the Battle of Rye Harbor (the 1814 one, not the current one). You will see and read about many other stories including how the New Hampshire National Guard used to train here every August for two weeks at Rand Springs in the 20’s and 30’s and  how WWII vets returned to create a powerful pond hockey team that challenged some of the top New England teams at Boston Garden. Our Town can tell stories with the best of them! One of the greatest, which I think is still not well known and often taken for granted, is the story of Parsons Park in the late 70’s and how a core of folks, that grew to 151 families and a generous landowner (Esther Parsons) and ultimately the voters, worked together and saved almost 50 acres of prime field and forest in the center of town for public use… forever.

Timeless view of the rocks off Rye's shore. (From Historical Society website: www.ryenhhistoricalsociety.org)

And then there are the sad stories about “Lost Rye” such as the Farragut and Stonleigh manor, hotels that might have been saved and re-used, and old 18th century homes that recently burned or were torn down. And the human stories - vivid memories of life in Rye earlier in the last century that seem to have all but faded in the wake of the dramatic development of our coast line.

At the end of the exhibit we try to address the issues around land use that have engaged townspeople in sometimes heated debate over the years.

As Mel Low said at the ZBA marathon, Rye is defined by the ocean. And it's how Rye nestles up against the great sea and the ebb and flow of humans against nature that is played out there that is the stuff of great drama. The theater is often in the great peace and tranquility one finds walking alone, but not lonely, with rocky shore, sand, waves, wind and great sky for company. No wonder we are drawn, lemming like, to the sea for this peace, for the drama of great storms and surfing waves. Some, of course, would like to actually live on the edge of it all, but Rye has only six miles of coastline, a very precious resource indeed. How do we share it and make it accessible and keep some balance with nature?

Former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said: “People don’t have a constitutional right to do exactly as they want with their land.” That’s why we have land use boards, isn’t it? But town government is only as good as the citizen participation in it; otherwise it is left to the few to make the decisions. Citizen activism must be responsible; in order to become educated on the issues it sometimes requires some of the same long hours that town boards have to put in. A critical mass of organized, educated citizens can lessen the burden of time spent by others of these issues.

Rye residents in 1976 celebrating the accomplishments of Rye residents of 1776 (From Historical Society website)

Another perspective from the past on the use of land comes from the great ecologist, Aldo Leopold, who wrote in the introduction to his “Sand County Almanac” in 1948: “We abuse land, because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong we may begin to use it with love and respect.” An increasing number of Rye residents have echoed this land ethic by donating acres for conservation or opting for “current use” status.

People do have a right to earn a fair dollar return on their land. For most, land is the biggest investment of their life, but what is fair and reasonable? The public good should not be held hostage to the wild swings and bloated prices of the housing market which are motivated by profit and not the land ethic Aldo Leopold expressed so well.

One voice at the Rye Harbor hearing was that of Ruth Griffin, NH executive councilor for 40 years, who said, via letter: “Think of what New Hampshire has – 17 miles of beautiful shoreline slowly being gobbled up and hidden from sight by condos for the few.”  Condos are a huge issue for coastal areas everywhere, because their density allows for the maximum return on the dollar but often does not leave much of a balance between people and nature that coastal areas require. The rights of the individual and the rights of the group (the town) must be worked out in public dialogue; if laws need to be changed or better enforced then it is the obligation of us all to become educated and let our voice be heard, not just on a single issue, but on all issues before the town.

In view of this need, I am announcing the revival of the Rye Civic League which served the public good from the late 60’s to the late 80’s by attending and reporting on meetings and holding public information forums. It also wrote and distributed a free monthly newsletter on town issues and other information. This would provide a complement to the Selectmen’s quarterly Town News. The good work and reporting of Rye Reflections has paved the way for the revival of the League. The reorganization meeting will be held at the Library community room on Tuesday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m.  Veterans of the Civic League will be on hand to lend some perspective. ALL ARE WELCOME.

In the meantime, stop by the museum and maybe you will have a story to add or a photo to copy so we can enlarge the exhibit and carry on the stories to the next generation.

History animates our lives and informs our futures.

(Alex Herlihy is chairman of the Rye Historical Society)

(To see Rye Reflections' policy on Opinion articles, please click here.)

September, 2009