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Monday, March 29, 2010

Land-buy rejections seen as conserving

While conservationists aren’t particularly thrilled with how conservation-related warrant articles fared at the polls this year, nobody is close to sounding the panic alarm, several of them said last week.

“I think that given the current economic climate, voters took a ‘what’s the biggest need right now?’ approach,” said Chris Wells, policy director for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. “In times like this, most voters just want to retain their core services, and approving funds for conservation land isn’t typically considered an immediate need.”

Amherst is a classic example of Wells’ analysis, as voters, who bounced and banged their way for months over miles of deteriorating town roads, were sufficiently motivated to pass a $15 million, multiyear road reconstruction bond, but not so with the $2.25 million open-space land bond, which they turned down by a more than 2-1 margin.

Also in Amherst, a petition article asking for $625,000 to buy suitable space for active recreation when the lease with Cemetery Fields runs out fared even worse at the polls, losing by a 3-1 margin.

Statewide, voters in the 15 communities that had conservation articles on the ballot defeated nine of them, dropping the success rate to 63 percent, down from 82 percent last year, the forest society said.

Those that did pass, however, totaled $420,907, up from the 2009 total of $268,000, buoyed in part by Acworth voters’ approval of $113,000 for conservation land abutting the town forest.

Overall, Amherst’s bond was the largest in terms of dollars, followed by Greenland’s $2 million bond, which was also defeated. Voters in Goffstown, Lyman and Plaistow also defeated land bonds, the society said.

But aside from this year’s vote, local conservationists, especially those in neighboring Hollis, are celebrating a recent spate of great news: Beaver Brook Association has reached a fundraising goal that enables the nonprofit to buy 80 acres off Rocky Pond Road.

A grant by a New York conservation group put the fund drive over the top, but its overall success is rooted in a far-reaching community effort that saw more than 160 individuals and groups, plus the town itself, contribute.

Amherst’s open-space bond, meanwhile, was amended from its original $3 million at the Deliberative Session and would have given town officials five years to spend $2.25 million for “open space,” or conservation land, mostly for passive recreation.

In 2004, voters passed a five-year, $5.5 million open-space bond, which is about to expire. Just one purchase, the $300,000 acquisition of 25 acres abutting existing conservation land on Mack Hill, was made with the funds, Selectman George Infanti said.

Infanti said the Open Space Advisory Committee brought selectmen a couple of other potential land purchases, “but as I remember, we were uncomfortable with the price.”

The Mack Hill parcel “was a very good buy, though,” he added, saying it allowed the conservation commission to connect two other conservation parcels and extend trails.

Open Space Advisory Committee member Bill Wichman said the committee had looked into a number of other parcels that came on the market over the five years, but that final agreements proved elusive.

“It was a matter of either the sellers not being comfortable with what we could pay or we decided the price was too high,” Wichman said.

Conservation Commission Chairman John Harvey, meanwhile, sees a combination of changing demographics and rising costs at the root of this year’s losses at the polls.

“There are two trends coinciding with one another,” he said. “One is that the elderly folks who have been very, very generous to us over the years, deeding land to us for the good of the town, are passing on, and there seem to be fewer and fewer people who are inclined to do that anymore.”

The other, he said, is the skyrocketing cost of land, despite the current economic downturn.

“It’s gotten to the point that (the town) can hardly afford a piece of land anymore,” he said. “Even a piece of landlocked timberland is getting out of reach.”

The nine-member OSAC, which was formed with the passage of the $5.5 million bond, was authorized to investigate potential land purchases as soon as they became available, Wichman said.

“The advantage was that we could act rapidly if land became available and get it to selectmen in timely fashion for their review,” he said, adding that delays can often lead to deals falling through.

But with the defeat of this year’s article, so goes the OSAC.

“We don’t exist anymore,” said Wichman, who is also a member of the Conservation Commission.

Wells wasn’t surprised by the overall results, “given the amount of funding approved in past years and the financial challenges facing towns and taxpayers,” he said. “Generally, large dollar requests fared poorly this year, while more modest contributions to conservation reserve funds continued to be supported by voters.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or dshalhoup@nashua