December 23, 2015DALTON — The amendments to a conservation easement on The Balsams acreage to which the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF) has agreed are a "sell-out," pure and simple, say Jim and Sandy Dannis, who retired from southern N.H. to Dalton a number of years ago.
The modifications that the couple opposes would allow some highly visible commercial development on sections of the 5,785 acres that SPNHF raised $850,000 in its successful five-week-long "Save the Balsams Landscape" campaign to buy a restrictive easement than they — or any of the other 1,500 other donors — could have understood from the nonprofit organization's appeal letters or brochures.
Many donors gave to the campaign because they wanted to block a proposed corridor for Northern Pass Transmission towers on The Balsams property.
"We believe the Forest Society is succumbing to the big money-political pressure of The Balsams developers to hustle through a set of wholesale changes to The Balsams easement just a short four years after thousands of people contributed to preserve this property," the couple wrote in an e-mail exchange. "Yes, the original easement contemplated (a single) additional ski lift over near the existing (Wilderness) ski area. But what The Balsams developers propose — and what the Forest Society is going along with — is to, in substance, turn over the pristine area right across the highway from the hotel to turn it into a brand new ski development.
"Contrary to what the Forest Society said just four years ago about preserving Dixville Notch, they are now on the verge of ruining this area permanently," the couple says. "The iconic, winding drive and viewshed up into (the) Notch will now look no different from any other commercial amusement park.
"We guess that's what money and political influence can buy," they say. "And what the Forest Society seems to miss is that by destroying the Balsams easement they are ruining public confidence in land conservation easements in general."
They themselves have halted their preliminary talks with SPNHF about putting a conservation easement on their own 1,700 acres in Dalton.
"We no longer have any confidence in their program," they explained.
Changes to the conservation easement are still in the hands of SPNHF's lawyers who are drafting the document that must be submitted to the Charitable Division of the state Attorney General's Office for approval. Sandy and Jim Dannis have contacted the Charitable Division to express their opposition and asked for the opportunity to comment in writing.
SPNHF Dec. 2 board minutes provide a rationale for its members vote: "In 2012 the Forest Society acquired conservation restrictions on 5,690 acres of undeveloped land surrounding The Balsams hotel. Those restrictions envisioned a revitalized Balsams Resort while setting out provisions to protect the conservation values of the property."
But the Dalton couple counters, "When we contributed to the Balsams easement we expected the easement to do what it was supposed to do … forever protect a property from development and to forever preserve the landscape, intact and wild, for the benefit of the public.
"But that's apparently no longer true, at least at the Balsams when big money developers and strong-arm politics are involved," they said.
To back up their argument, they point what SPNHF president-forester Jane Difley wrote in the Spring 2012 issue of "Forest Notes" magazine.
"The Balsams Grand Resort, nestled in the crags of Dixville Notch, is an iconic New Hampshire hotel," Difley wrote. "But the real attraction of The Balsams in this forester's eye is the majestic, rocky, forested landscape that cradles the hotel. Here is a luxury hotel, surrounded by an even grander wilderness. … [T]he Balsams land provides an important, unbroken forested link for wildlife as well as people. …
"We are now permanent partners with the hotel owners in the stewardship of 5,785 of the resort's 7,800 acres. … (Longtime owner Neil Tillotson) wanted to provide North Country jobs, and the hotel and forest did that under his stewardship and will continue to do so…."
Jim and Sandy Dannis are outraged that, as they put it, "even though the easement flatly prohibits it, the developers want ski lifts, ski trails, lift stations, snowmaking, lighting and other structural elements of the new ski resort to be built on parts of the conserved land that are supposed to be left untouched.
"As part of getting the easement restrictions set aside, the developers would hand over a package of benefits to SPNHF, such as additional parcels of conserved land, money and releases of development rights in other areas. The kind word for this kind of deal is 'mitigation.'
"In our view, though, it's nothing more than a bald exchange: if you'll sell out the easement restrictions, we'll give you a lot of stuff.
"For comparison," Sandy and Jim Dannis point out, "Northern Pass would have crossed less than a mile of the property in a remote location.
"The 'grand wilderness' and 'majestic, forested landscape that cradles the hotel' (described by Difley) would be changed indelibly, permanently and beyond recognition," they conclude.
"Why should any private, for-profit development be able to run roughshod over a permanent conservation easement?" the couple asks. "Permanent conservation easements are property rights. … They're not supposed to be subject to being erased just because some developers and politicians wish they weren't there.
"It's a permanent property interest, no different for these purposes than any piece of privately owned land. But (ski-and-resort-developer Les Otten of Maine) and the politicians want to use the conserved land. They can't seize the land via eminent domain … so instead they're using political pressure to achieve their aims by propping up what we believe is an obviously incorrect reading of the easement language.
"We'd love to see the Balsams redevelopment succeed," the couple agrees. "But if success for the project means using pretexts to nullify a permanent easement protecting iconic land in Dixville Notch — an easement that was bought and paid for (by donors) who wanted to see the land kept forever free of development and who were promised exactly that — then the price is too high."
The couple's concerns about The Balsams revival and expansion has, however, in no way changed their total opposition to the proposed overhead Northern Pass Transmission towers in which SPNHF has played a key role.
Their objections, in fact, stem from their deep, shared passion for preserving the state's conserved landscapes and in preserving property rights.
Sandy and Jim Dannis explained, "Our opposition to both Northern Pass and the Balsams easement amendments stems from our desire to preserve and protect the special landscapes of northern New Hampshire from unwarranted damage and to protect property rights."