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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Efforts continue to protect Litchfield’s rare, seasonally flooded marshland

CONCORD – The question of whether the state actually bought 98 acres around Grassy Pond in Litchfield more than a decade ago has clouded efforts to give it state protection.

A public hearing Tuesday on a bill to preserve the property (HB 1356) featured a dispute between two state agency officials over whether the state bought the land in 1998.

Within 30 minutes of the hearing, Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, the bill’s prime author, confirmed the state indeed had acquired the pristine wetland 14 years ago.

An official with the Department of Resources and Economic Development had told a House panel there was no evidence the state owned the land, she said.

During an interview, Ober said she would consult with Gov. John Lynch about creating a searchable, database of state-owned property.

“It was really past the pale to have someone with DRED come in, not even get in touch with me, and make this claim about state ownership that had no basis in fact,” Ober said. “My hope is that now that issue has been resolved, the bill can move ahead because it’s critical for this property.”

Wetland scientists consider Grassy Pond, just north of Pinecrest Road in the center of Litchfield, a rare inland, seasonally flooded wetland with sandy soils and characteristics of coastal property. It is one of the few in existence in New England and perhaps the only one in New Hampshire.

Surveys going back to the mid-1990s have found the area is home to 33 species of birds and 68 species of plant life.

Five of the birds were on the state’s High Priority Species list, two rare plants were there and two forms of turtles at the property were on the NH Fish and Game threatened and endangered species list.

“We believe it should be preserved and the way to do it is pass this bill,” Ober told the House Resources, Recreation and Development Committee.

Currently, the Nature Conservancy manages the parcel along with the Litchfield Conservation Commission.

Commission Chairman Joan McKibben said the only restriction on the land is to ban the use of motorized vehicles like ATVs.

There is a well-used walking trail on the parcel, and it’s a popular place for school groups to study nature.

“Looking forward at the potential for difficult economic times, we wanted to make sure there was more protection on it,” McKibben said.

In the late-1980s the Litchfield School Board eyed using some of the pond property for new athletic fields, explained Litchfield Selectman Frank Byron. A private developer in March 1998 bought adjacent land and started clearing it for potential house lots, he continued.

Byron credited then-federal Environmental Protection Agency director John DeVillars, state Environmental Services Commissioner Robert Varney and ex-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen with devising a strategy to preserve the land.

At an emergency meeting of the Executive Council, Shaheen proposed the state buy the wetlands as part of a Superfund cleanup of the New Hampshire Plating Co. property in Merrimack.

Carl Baxter, administrator of the state hazardous waste division, explained the Litchfield land was used as mitigation for the cleanup because metals from the Merrimack plating business had destroyed wetlands there.

Litchfield owns about 10 acres adjacent to the state parcel but selectmen have not discussed what to do with the local land if this bill becomes law, Byron added.

Donald Kent, state administrator of DRED’s forest and lands division, said a cursory check found no proof the state owns it.

“Our records show that we do not own this land,” Kent testified. “The majority of it is owned by Litchfield school district and town of Litchfield and a small sliver of it to the north is owned by a developer.”

DRED has no objections to protecting the land if the Legislature desires to pass the bill, Kent added.

After this testimony, Ober said she spoke with Litchfield tax officials who located the deed the state has held on the land since the spring of 1998.

Rep. Harry Merrow, R-Ossipee, a member of the panel hearing this bill, said he would oppose any effort to close off public access as part of the state preservation.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and The Telegraph’s interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.