"I think it's great for the north country, but here?" asked Durham Town Councilor Katie Paine. "We already have no way of funding education. We already need more residential housing. More people isn't going to solve the problem."
If the Free State Project is successful, 20,000 people will move to New Hampshire by 2006. The project was created by Jason Sorens, 26, and followers who want to bring as much liberty as possible to a single state. According to the project's website, members believe in small government, and as little control as possible.
As of now, the group's website says there are about 5,000 people ready to move to New Hampshire, which was chosen because of its "political, economic, and cultural advantages." The website, www.freestateproject.org, also says New Hampshire was chosen because of its low population. Wyoming came in second.
Sorens and other project leaders say on the website that the Free State plan is not simply a libertarian movement, despite its reputation. The project is a nonprofit corporation, not a political organization. Those involved believe in freedom and independence, and some are members of other political parties, the website says.
The group's mascot is a porcupine. According to the website: "Porcupines are certainly cute and nonaggressive, but you don't want to step on them." The website says Free State members do not promote secession.
Elizabeth McKinstry, the Free State group's vice president, said the project does not dictate where in New Hampshire the 20,000 should move. "Different people are going to have different needs," she said, adding that she planned to move to New Hampshire from Michigan once 20,000 names are on the list.
To seacoast dwellers, New Hampshire was an obvious choice. Where else can you buy tax-free fireworks next to shops that sell discounted cigarettes next to bars where you can smoke them? This place, they said, is about as free as it gets.
Still, critics of the movement -- mostly Democrats and officials in cash-strapped towns -- warned of the effects of a spike in the region's population. They also cautioned the Free State members about how much will actually be free if they move.
"People who move to New Hampshire love it until they see their property tax bills," said Vic Richards, town administrator in Atkinson, N.H.
Richards echoed Paine's concerns about a migration to New Hampshire. The seacoast is already coping with a population boom, he said.
"I think in general, this part of New Hampshire has had growth problems," he said. "I don't know if the Free State people have thought about that. It's not easy to find a job here. Good luck trying to find a job up north, too."
While Governor Craig Benson endorsed the Free State Project's plan, Democrats questioned how the state and more specifically, the seacoast, would bear the burden of some or most of the 20,000 possible newcomers.
New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan has spoken out against the migration, citing the current strains on resources.
Paine, of Exeter, said the shore towns have already seen too much growth. She said her concerns center around education and the budget.
"I don't think the state knows how to educate the people we've got," she said.
McKinstry said Free State members will not overburden current New Hampshire residents. She said the group is working on a plan takes into account the interest of those who already live in the designated free state.
"People can relax," she said. "Its not like an invasion of locusts."
Norman Olsen, cochairman of Portsmouth's Republican Committee, argued that the state could handle the extra company.
"Generally, I think that Republicans and New Hampshirites are happy with the idea," he said.
Like Republicans, he said, libertarians appreciate small government. If Free State Project migrators had to choose between a Democratic and Republican candidate, the ruling party would win, he said.
"In that sense, I think Republicans are happy to see them come," he said.
Olsen added that he thinks the new wave will create opportunities for those who already live in New Hampshire. The Free State Project boasts that of its members, 50 percent have an undergraduate degree and 18 percent have done post-graduate work. Seventy-five percent of the members are under 50 and 38 percent are between 18 and 34. Forty-four percent earn $60,000 or more a year.
"They hire people," he said. "They build business and opportunity."
While some local officials questioned whether the Free State Project can actually persuade 20,000 people to move, Olsen said he wouldn't be surprised if the plan was a success.
"You have at least 10,000 people living in southern New Hampshire who have packed up already to escape the Taxachusetts environment," he said.
Steve Carbone, owner of Atomic Fireworks in Seabrook, said that although New Hampshire may be the best place for the libertarian crowd, he doesn't believe they'll get 20,000 people to make the pilgrimage.
"Who's going to just pick up their family and move just to be able to vote that way?" he asked. "You'd have to be pretty radical in your thinking."
Carbone said he won't mind the extra customers if the crowd does make its way to New Hampshire. His only concern is that the libertarian platform will be too appealing to Republicans, who are already at risk of losing power in a state that has seen a political shift.
"The only trouble is, they could take from the Republican vote and turn us to a Democrat state," he said of the Free State members. "That would scare me."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.