New Hampshire

If you had to pinpoint the northern extremity of the American megalopolis, the urban-suburban sprawl that runs north from Washington through Boston, you could do worse than agree with Lowell Apple who says it's right here in Hooksett.

It might even be a 100-acre cornfield off Rte. 3 on the grounds of what was until this year a small Catholic college for women, Mount St. Mary's.

The boom that has made New Hampshire the second fastest growing state east of the rocky Mountains -- Florida is first -- reaches north along Rte. 3 past a Kmart, two banks, the Colonial House of Pancakes and the Goodnight Motel, which also sells mobile homes, to the former college.

Apple, who heads Hooksett's threeman board of selectmen, says his town is beginning to cope with the pressures that have brought fast-paced growth to the three counties that curve around it on the south and east -- Hilsborough, Rockingham and Strafford.

New Hampshire's population is expected to hit 937,000 soon, up from 737,000 in 1970. Almost all of this growth has been in the southern tier of counties, which has attracted people and industry in flight from Massachusetts taxes. Others swelling the population come from more distant states for much the same reason -- New Hampshire's sinfully low taxes.

Hooksett has been watching the boom with some envy and a little apprehension, Apple says.

There is only token opposition to growth here, as might be expected in a state where enviromental concerns have been taken so seriously as threats to jobs that presidential candidates coming here have been warned that if they have to put in a good word for environmental protection, they should be sure to mention federal aid in the same breath.

Hooksett is not a picture post card New England village, and Apple dismisses the few townsfolk who oppose growth as not very sensible sorts.

"If you were giving away $100 bills, there would be some people saying they don't want them," he says.

"You may want this land to sit and look pretty, but it's going to develop. It has a right to develop," says Hooksett's equally pro-growth planning board chairman, Dick Marshall.

Apple and Marshall are determinbed, however, that Mount St. Mary's and other sites suitable for development will invite benefits, and not potential problems.

Hooksett began to feel development pressure in 1973, Apple says. A town that even now has only 7,393 people by New Hampshire count (Apple insists the figure is closer to 10,000), one that hadn't been paying much attention to economic forces crowding in, suddenly found itself confronted with a need for 1,450 new apartments, Apple recalls.

The selectmen called a special town meeting and, in effect, punted. They zoned any future apartment housing to death.

With public education already costing Hooksett more than $1,500 per child, the town fathers have moved to head off any danger that it would become just another bedroom community for greater Boston, struck with the bills for schools, highways, and police and fire services without the tax revenues from new commercial and industrial developments.

In early 1975, K mart opened a mall in Hooksett after the town passed a sewer bond issue to entice developers to town. "We're still paying off that bond issue, but that was an excellent investment," Apple says.

Though planning and zoning were once dirty words in New Hampshire, and then-governor Meldrim Thomson encouraged growth without controls, the Hooksett leadership is proceeding cautiously.

Hooksett passed a master plan at a town meeting this month, a year after establishing its first building code. (In pre-code days, developers put up apartment buildings without fire walls and other safety devices. One burned to the ground in less than an hour in May 1978. By good luck no one was hurt. "That fire got us a building code," Marshall said.

A lack of public interest in another issue -- sewers -- has caused Apple and Marshall problems this year.

Hooksett's 500,000 gallon-a-day sewage system is burdened close to capacity.

At a town meeting last spring, a sewer expansion program lost by one vote. "We recounted those votes half a dozen times," Apple says with a grin, "but it always came out the same way. "A new proposal to quintuple the capacity to 2.5 million gallons will be on the ballot this spring.

"Without sewer growth, we're not going anywhere," Marshall said.

A lot of interest centers on the Mount St. Mary campus, in part because its developers are playing their cards close to their vests.

A group of partners led by Robert Howard, chairman and president of Centronis Data Computer Corp. of Hudson, N.H., bought the closed college from the Sisters of Mercy for $2.35 million.

Howard did not return several telephone calls about his plans for the site. "He's letting everyone do a lot of guessing." one real estate agent said when asked about Howard's plans for the 500-acre college, its modern dormitories, library and its centerpiece: a giant, four-story Georgian brick building that would frighten anyone who had to pay its heating bill.

No one is certain what will become of the acres of woods through which the nuns laid trails named "Brook," "Reservoir" and "Meadow," or the cornfield now serving as a buffer between tow small housing developments.

Marshall foresees some sort of commercial development in the cornfield, and preservation of the tree line as a lmuch-diminished buffer. The entire college site should take 10 years to develop fully.

By then, Megalopolis' northern edge will have passed Hooksett by, just as it has already passed by Derry, about 15 miles south of here, where Robert Frost lived and wrote. Apartment houses stand in clearings cut from the birch there, and there is another K mart, a McDonalds and two shopping plazas not too far away.