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Free State founder running for Amherst Planning Board amid anti-free stater sentiment

By Nancy West - InDepthNH | Feb 18, 2023

Jason Sorens is pictured with his wife Olga in this courtesy photo.

The founder of the Free State Project that convinced thousands of like-minded politically active libertarians to move to New Hampshire is running for planning board in Amherst, and left his position at Saint Anselm College for a libertarian think tank.

Jason Sorens, who launched the Free State movement two decades ago, is 46 now, married with children and living in Amherst. As their success in politics grows, so does anti-Free Stater sentiment.

“The time was right,” Sorens said of his first run for office.

He put his family’s roots down in Amherst at a time he and a group of citizens saw some troubling issues, which he said included losing three zoning lawsuits in the last year – two in court and one before the Housing Appeals Board.

“We want to make change,” said Sorens, an expert in land-use management.

The group wasn’t pleased with some planning board members, he said.

“The majority seem to want to stop all growth by any means necessary,” Sorens said.

“They are proposing new zoning amendments that would make it harder to subdivide and we don’t like the trajectory the town is on,” Sorens said. “We think it’s going to continue to escalate housing costs, drive out young people, essential workers and retirees and raise the tax burden.”

Political Inroads, Critics

Free Staters have made serious political inroads in New Hampshire pushing for less government and more personal freedom, but prompted some along the way to call them “infiltrators” disrupting New Hampshire’s way of life in search of a libertarian no-government utopia.

Sorens, formerly director of Center for Ethics in Society at Saint Anselm College, has taken a new job as senior research faculty at the think tank American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) in Great Barrington, Mass., but will remain an Amherst resident.

Sorens is best known for publishing the Free State Project manifesto in 2001 to get 20,000 liberty loving people to promise to move to New Hampshire for the political impact they could have in a small state.

That many have made the commitment since New Hampshire was chosen as the desired state in 2003 with the backing of then-Gov. Craig Benson, and so far as many as 8,000 to 9,000 are believed to have done so.

An estimated 100 or so have been elected to the state House and one to the state Senate running as Republicans. Many others run for the nonpartisan seats on local boards.

People in some communities say they wouldn’t mind if Free Staters returned to wherever they came from, however.

The town of Croydon and Belknap County have had brushes with Free Staters, stirring animosity on both sides.

One of the candidates Sorens is running against for planning board is attorney Arnie Rosenblatt who has lived in Amherst for 35 years, served on the planning board for 25 years and is currently chairman.

“There is a group of people who are very much in support of development and growth and against any kind of regulation…,” Rosenblatt said.

That is not consistent, in his opinion, with the views of most people in town.

Free Staters, he said, “have pretty extreme libertarian views.” And he said there have been statements about the planning board going around town that are not accurate.

About Sorens being a Free Stater, Rosenblatt said, “I would assume it will be an issue.” However, he said in small town elections, the voters don’t always have much information about the candidates before casting their votes.

Rosenblatt said he might have an issue himself with a Free Stater serving on the planning board.

“My limited understanding is they have an absolute libertarian view of the world,” Rosenblatt said. “I’ve tried to do my best as a member of the planning board and would like to continue.” Voting takes place March 14.

Belknap County Brouhaha

Brian Biehl, an organizer with Citizens for Belknap in the Lakes Region, said their work got underway after the Belknap County Delegation under the leadership of Free Stater Rep. Mike Sylvia, who has since been voted out of office, tried to remove some of the five Gunstock Area Commissioners.

“Sylvia attempted to take over control of the Gunstock Area Commission and appoint cronies to do his bidding,” Biehl said, “including attempting to drain the county nursing home and county corrections of their resources as part of larger effort for some libertarian utopia.”

Citizens for Belknap’s website says they are educating voters to avoid marginal candidates “such as fringe Free Staters and extreme Libertarians pretending to be Republican candidates.”

Biehl said: “In order to establish a small government utopia, libertarians and Free Staters are infiltrating New Hampshire government at all levels to promote these misguided positions.

“It’s slow motion take over because voters are not paying close enough attention and they are seizing upon voter inattention,” Biehl said.

Zandra Rice Hawkins, executive director of Granite State Progress, a progressive advocacy group, said: “We have been very cautious any time a Free Stater engages in any policy discussion because we’ve seen time and again that they look for inroads to build relationships and policy steps that further their own goals which are not aligned with most Granite Staters,” Rice Hawkins said.

She pointed to Croydon as an example, saying the end goal of Free Staters there was to abolish public education and privatize it.

She said Winchester is another town dealing with “Free State infiltration into town politics.

“We would caution everyone when it comes to planning board discussion and regulation reform, Free Staters have made it very clear they do not believe in shared community priorities or regulation, licensing and oversight,” she said.

In Sullivan County in western New Hampshire, Free Stater Ian Underwood’s successful motion at Croydon’s annual school meeting last March slashed the $1.7 million school budget in half when only 34 people attended the meeting voting 20 to 14 for the cut.

The outcry forced a second school meeting that restored the full budget last May, this time with a vote of 377 to 2 in favor of the full amount.

Sorens said: “Some Free Staters do believe that the private market could ultimately handle all government functions (anarcho-capitalists), but many believe that a limited government will always be necessary (minarchists).” He counts himself as a minarchist.

“I think the ‘us vs. them’ attitude has emerged in part because media coverage has naturally focused on the more eccentric Free Staters rather than the ones who’ve gotten positive things done for the state,” Sorens said.

According to the Free State Project website, it is a “mass migration of more than 20,000 people who have pledged to move to New Hampshire for liberty. By concentrating our numbers in a single state, we are maximizing our impact as activists, entrepreneurs, community builders, and thought leaders.”

Sorens is leaving behind the WhatNowNH program at Saint Anselm College, an initiative to encourage more people to take an interest in land use planning and run for planning board, and it offers mentors to help people run.

“I decided to run for planning board because of my expertise in land-use issues and the NowWhatNH campaign, which is supported by progressive groups, with whom I have a good relationship,” he said. https://nowwhatnh.com/

Among Free Staters, “I don’t know of any formal training, nor would I say there is a focus on planning boards, but Free Staters have always been active in their communities, so a lot of them run for office, whether at the state or the local level.”

Housing Crisis

The future of zoning is on the minds of a lot of people given the housing crisis New Hampshire is facing.

In his $100 million INVEST NH housing plan, Gov. Chris Sununu earmarked $5 million for planning/zoning grants for municipalities to update or expand pro-housing planning and zoning regulations.

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Lynn, R-Windham, released a joint statement after the House passed HB347-FN, establishing a superior court land-use review docket.

“This bill will not only reduce the backlog of land use cases that currently exists, but will provide many economic benefits for local boards, property owners and developers,” Osborne said in the release.

Osborne is listed on the AIER website, where Sorens now works, as a voting member of AIER governance.

William Ruger, who has been president of AIER for a year, co-wrote “Freedom in the 50 States” with Sorens.

Osborne’s voting membership convenes on campus once a year, Ruger said.

“He is not involved in day-to-day operations,” Ruger said.

‘Success Overall’

Sorens said there was no way to know where the Free State Project would go when he started it as a graduate student at Yale.

“I think it’s been a success overall and quite a positive development,” Sorens said. “I stay fairly active, but am not involved in the day-to-day leadership.”

He didn’t move to New Hampshire himself until 2013.

“With a lot of effort and tradeoffs I did make it here. It’s been a great experience, I made a lot of friends and I think I made a positive difference,” Sorens said.


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