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Lands Advisory Committee considers placing county land under conservation easement



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A view of a portion of the county-owned land the Forest Society would like to see placed under a conservation easement. (Photo by Melissa Seamans) (click for larger version)
July 25, 2018
OSSIPEE — The Carroll County Lands Advisory Committee welcomed Tom Howe of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests July 20 to discuss putting 800 acres of county-owned land into a conservation easement.

First formed in Spring 2016, the committee has changed its membership and its course under the leadership of Chairman Steve Knox of Albany, but has maintained the goal of recommending the best use of the Ossipee acreage now and in the future. Knox said the committee held listening sessions throughout Carroll County and the idea of conservation easement on the Ossipee land came up several times in discussions.

Howe explained that a conservation easement is, "a written promise by the landowner that the land will never be developed further into the future. That written promise takes the legal form that is typically called a conservation easement deed document that gets recorded at the registry of deeds and becomes a permanent part of the title associated with that piece of real estate."

The easement holder, whether a trust or agency (such as SPNHF), then assumes all responsibility for monitoring the landowner's compliance with the easement restrictions.

The easement has a series of prohibitions, said Howe, designed to protect the significant conservation features and natural resources of the property including agricultural, working farm and forest land, scenic value, wildlife habitat, support of high quality water and outdoor recreational opportunities.

Once the easement takes effect, it is permanent, and not to be entered lightly, said Howe. In fact, there are only two ways a conservation easement can be removed. The first is "condemnation" of all or a portion of the property by a government agency. Howe said SPNHF holds about 800 conservation easements in New Hampshire, and the most common reason a government agency takes a portion of conservation property by this eminent domain process is for the construction or expansion of roadways. The only other way a conservation easement can be removed is if the landowner proves in court that the reason the easement was placed no longer exists. For example, if an endangered species found on the property is no longer listed as endangered. Howe said he has never seen a case, nationwide, where this reason has lifted an easement.

An easement does not mean, explained, Howe, that the property must remain in its current state, so long as improvements or activities support the easement intent. For example, if the County land was placed in easement for agricultural and the County later wanted to build a pole barn, sap house, dairy barn, or install solar arrays, these things could be permitted with input from the easement holder.

Getting the conservation is a multi-step process. First, the County would have to find an agency interested in holding the easement. Fundraising, including grant seeking, by the agency would be done to raise enough money to not only buy the easement from the County but plan for management and long-term stewardship costs. A survey of the proposed easement area would need to be done as well as an appraisal. Then through a negotiation process, the County would come to an agreement how much to sell the easement for. Howe said it takes about two years to get all of the work and the fundraising done.

Much of the July 20 conversation focused on vision. Much work will need to be done to envision what the County government needs will be in the future and what amount of land will be devoted to easement forever.

The entire county property is in Ossipee. Only one of the decision makers lives in Ossipee, County Commissioner David Babson. The committee includes Knox, Dale Drew of Conway, Wakefield residents Susan Gaudette and County Commissioner Amanda Bevard, State Rep. Mark McConkey of Freedom and Sandra Brocaar of Madison. The third county commissioner, Mark Hounsell, lives in Conway. None of the 15 members of the county delegation live in Ossipee.

Most of the county land is tax exempt though at least one portion is taxed at the current use reduced property tax rate. Of note, according to the annual property inventory form, Ossipee has 44,338 acres of land. Of that, 28,033 (about 63 percent of all Ossipee land) is either exempt from property tax or (23,933 acres) listed in current use.

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