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PEAKS & VALLEYS

Grafton's messy liberation

In theory, the Free State Project, the brainchild of Yale political science lecturer Jason Sorens, poses an interesting question: What exactly would happen if a critical mass of small-government proponents all moved to one place?

When the group of nearly 6,000 like-minded folks -- many highly educated, libertarian-leaning types -- decided that place was New Hampshire, Governor Craig Benson welcomed them. But now that a splinter group called the Free Town Project has announced plans to "liberate" the town of Grafton, population 1,200, it's starting to get messy.

"Freetowners" targeted Grafton for its lack of zoning, says member Larry Pendarvis of Brandon, Fla., who runs the group's website and plans to relocate. "There's no way you can move in enough people to absolutely control the elections without building." Plus, he says, Grafton resident John Babiarz, who heads the state's Libertarian Party, told them they'd find fellow travelers in Grafton.

No one has moved there yet, but town officials say two large parcels of land have been bought by a group member from New Jersey. Most of what people know so far comes from blustery online discussions and the Freetowners' website, which lays out the goals: "liberation" from building code enforcement, mandatory recycling, and a state law forbidding more than two junk cars on private property. Also, "to ensure that the Town Police are never allowed to waste valuable Town resources (taken from the residents as taxes AT THE POINT OF A GUN)" to enforce drug or prostitution laws, along with compulsory education.

Pendarvis might not be the kind of immigrant Sorens -- or Benson -- had envisioned. A computer analyst who also goes by the alias Zack Bass, Pendarvis was convicted in Polk County, Fla., in 1997 of more than 100 counts of downloading child pornography, a conviction later overturned on appeal. His other enterprises include a website that peddles mail-order brides from the Philippines with the slogan, "Date Locally, Marry Globally."

His site, the Free New Hampshire Project, fnhp.com, has a section called "Blood, Bath and Beyond," that complains about "anti-Libertarian" local officials, including a retired Enfield police chief, Grafton selectmen, and their clerk, Bonnie Haubrich.

Graftonians say all this is a bit much, even for New Hampshire. "The small government was what drew me here," says Gregg Ramsay, who owns a house in town. "But there aren't a whole lot of people who are happy with Free Town Project."

"These people don't play nice," says Babiarz, whom many blame for inviting the group, but who now says he wants nothing to do with the Freetowners. Still, despite being on the Blood, Bath and Beyond list, Selectman Chair Jennie Joyce is not worried. "Mostly what we've heard has been hearsay and conjecture," she says. "We'll see how it goes." Residents were hoping to learn more at a town meeting this weekend.

Sorens has disavowed any link to Pendarvis, and says the vast majority of Free Staters are good citizens. But Grafton will probably be a hot topic at the group's Porcupine Freedom Festival next weekend in Lancaster. Tours of the town are being offered on Sunday.

GOLD AGE: Worried about that nagging ache in your knee? Get over it. Consider retired Fairhaven schoolteacher David Ward, who, at 88, is the oldest of nearly 800 50-plus athletes who are shotputting, sprinting, long-jumping, and swimming their way through this weekend's Massachusetts Senior Games at Springfield College. Winners qualify for next year's Senior Olympics, and participation has nearly doubled. Ward's secret? Be active every day. And try the triathlon: "If you're training for swimming, biking, and running, you can't help but be in good shape."

B.J. Roche, who writes from Western Massachusetts, can be reached at peaks@globe.com.

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