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Staff photo by Don Himsel

Woodmont Orchard West was purchased and preserved by the town of Hollis.
Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hollis group wants less money spent on land

HOLLIS – Townspeople take pride in the rural landscape, pristine woods and hiking trails, safeguarded over the last decade or more through planning, conservation and key purchases.

But hard times are bringing out the penny-pincher in some residents who recently signed a petition for a warrant article that will appear on the ballot at Town Meeting asking voters to stop funding the Conservation Commission with revenue from the land use change tax and put all of the money into the general fund.

Since 1999, the town has directed half of all land use change tax funds to the Conservation Commission – money the group has used to buy, preserve and manage about 10 properties.

But John Anderson, founder of the newly created Informed Citizens United and author of the petition signed by 31 taxpayers, says the practice has to stop.

“When that money goes directly to the Conservation Commission, it doesn’t help the taxpayer one iota,” Anderson said.

The funds are paid to the town after a property owner removes land from current use, a tax distinction that dramatically lowers property tax.

Under current use, which applies only to parcels of 10 acres or more of undeveloped land that qualify, a property owner pays from $20-$425 per acre in taxes.

The land use change tax is based on fair market value at the time of the change and represents 10 percent of that value.

A housing lot sold for $200,000, for example, would net $20,000 in land use change tax revenue, currently divided 50-50 between the Conservation Commission and the general fund.

The amount of money generated by the tax varies from year to year, depending on the economy. Revenue paid to the commission in 2002 from the land use change tax totaled $319,336. Six years later, the commission received $32,945.

The Conservation Commission asserts that the stream of revenue from the tax, although unpredictable from year to year, has allowed the town to buy and protect roughly 11 parcels since 1998, including:

 • The Henry Hildreth Conservation Area on Federal Hill Road.

 • An interest in Monson Village on Federal Hill Road.

 • The Millicent Gardner Memorial Conservation Easement on South Merrimack Road.

 • Other undeveloped farm and forest land.

Conservation officials said having the funds available allows them to make purchases in a timely fashion, which is important in land deals that property owners often want to negotiate and settle quickly.

Since 1998, moreover, the commission has protected 265 acres with conservation easement deeds and 173 acres with land purchases using private donations, a total of 438 acres at an average cost of $3,250 an acre. The land that has been preserved hasn’t swayed Anderson or others in the taxpayers group, who are concerned that the commission is spending taxpayer money, no matter the amount.

One bone of contention is a decision the commission made late last year to contribute $200,000 to a land purchase by the Beaver Brook Association.

“I don’t know why they ever agreed to Beaver Brook with taxpayers’ money without asking them first,” Anderson said, referring to taxpayers.

The two sides are still negotiating, and town officials said the deal hinges on acquiring public access to the property and a say in managing it.

Meanwhile, Anderson is preparing for his group’s first public meeting, scheduled for 10 a.m.-noon today at Town Hall, where there’s likely to be more discussion about taxes and the Conservation Commission.

“Conservation has raised my property values, and old-timers’ property values have worked out very well,” Anderson said.

“But the point is, we’re at a crossroads here. The economy of the United States of America, taxpayers, are running out of money. We can’t earn money fast enough to pay for the governments we’re running.”

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 24, or hbernstein@cabinet.com.