November 21, 2012WAKEFIELD — The first of two public hearings on accepting grants to purchase 121 acres in Union Meadows held last Wednesday, Nov. 14, prompted a lively debate among residents at the meeting.
Wakefield selectmen are required to hold two public hearings in order for the town to accept two grants worth $135,000. The grants will be applied to the $150,000 purchase price of five parcels along the Branch River in Union for conservation purposes.
Conservation Commission Chairman Dave Mankus presented the proposal, describing the combined parcels as being "park-like" with "lots of signs of wildlife" and one mile of frontage on the Branch River. Timber had been harvested in 2010 and the town can do its own future harvesting. Half of the purchase price ($75,000) will go to fund scholarships for Wakefield students. Thanks to the grants, Mankus said, "for $30,000 of conservation money the town buys the property."
Most of the discussion centered on the larger of the two grants, for $85,000 from the N.H. Fish & Game Department. The difference between that grant and the smaller one, for $50,000 from the Land and Community Investment Program (LCHIP), is that Fish & Game will receive in return a permanent conservation easement on the properties that will prohibit or limit some activities, most importantly access by vehicles other than snowmobiles in winter and overnight camping, except for youth groups three times a year.
Selectman Charlie Edwards confirmed that the town had committed to buying the properties and then asked, "If the commitment is done, why hold a hearing?"
Selectman Chair Ken Paul explained that the hearings were required in order to complete the purchase.
Mankus added that if the town did not go through with the sale after having signed a purchase and sales agreement, "there could be penalties and the seller could sue, since she kept the properties off the markets for a year-and-a-half."
Selectman Peter Kasprzyk said that when he first got involved with the Conservation Commission, the commission was looking for contiguous parcels that could be joined together. "These are the best available," he said, referring to the Union Meadows lots. He also pointed out a number of concerns had been raised at early meetings, including the issue of Agenda 21, a United Nations sustainability resolution.
Edwards said he was not disagreeing with the purchase but there were residents who did and were concerned that "nothing would stop Fish and Game from coming in and applying prohibitions to protect endangered species."
Paul pointed out that the properties could be sold for house lots: while some parts are in the flood zone, it is buidable.
When the hearing was opened to public comment, Heritage Commission Chair Pam Judge said her commission was asked about this project and decided unanimously to support it. "There is a mill site on the property and it also has an impact on properties in Union that are being preserved." Judge said she had walked the property and, speaking personally and as a long time real estate agent in the area (but not for the commission), she said it is "an absolutely beautiful property. I have never seen a parcel as beautiful. It is a park-like situation. People of any age can use the property: even elders can get around." In her view purchasing the property would benefit nearly everyone in Wakefield.
Edwards asked if the property is gated. Judge answered that it was in order to keep out motorized vehicles.
Mankus explained that the plan for the property would include building a parking lot visible from the road to avoid people dumping trash where it can't be seen.
Resident Arthur Fulton said that a dock or launch should be provided to allow boats and canoes to be launched and camping should be allowed. When Mankus clarified that the fish and Game agreement allows limited overnight camping by youth groups on three weekends a year, Fulton said he felt that if the town own the lots it should set the rules.
Keith Fletcher, Director of Land Conservation at Moose Mountain Regional Greenways (MMRG) said that the easement limits what the state can do as well. "This is a stunning property," he said, adding that Fish and Game considers preserving the Meadows as a prime project. "It is really a $250,000 project: the owner is willing to selling a lower [$150,000] price.
Mankus added that it is not possible to make the property accessible for everyone: the goal is "low impact" use that does not change the property. Daytime camping and even snowmobile trails could be added if the town wants them.
Resident Jerry O'Connor asked Mankus if the town would own the property. Mankus said yes. O'Connor said the language in the agreement copy he has says the federal government owns the property. There was no response to that remark. O'Connor added that he does not like to see private property rights sold out.
Resident Dave Tinkum asked, "How many pieces of conservation land in town come with scholarship money? This is a no-brainer."
Resident Steve Brown said he had walked the land and felt strongly that the town should buy it outright and not give up control by accepting federal grants.
Paul responded that the town is getting $135,000 in grants to buy a $150,000 property. "We don't have the money, and the budget for next year so is looking at being up 10 percent."
Resident Perce Rich said "the Conservation Commission has worked hard on this. Go ahead. If Steve Brown wants to buy outright, there is the warrant article process. Don't hold up the purchase."
O'Connor pointed out language in the agreement that allows the government to swap for other properties if the land is no longer useful. Resident and MMRG Board Member Steve Panish said that language was boilerplate and added to cover any contingency, including the taking of land by public domain for other uses.
MMRG Executive Director Virginia Long emphasized a point made earlier by Mankus that if the property is purchased by a private buyer that buyer could bar all access to it.
Brookfield resident and videographer Ed Comeau ended the comment period by asking "Do you really understand the easement?" and stating "We need to find a better way to conserve land."
The second public hearing on accepting the grants will be held on Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. during the next Board of Selectmen meeting.
Selectmen approved accepting a Piscataqua Regional Land Transaction Grant for $4,000 to pay for closing costs on the Union Meadows properties.
The board hosted a presentation by Municipal Resources Inc. of the findings of its six-month survey of town operations. See separate report.
Selectmen approved a Building Department Policy statement as revised by Building Inspector Arthur Capello to make it clearer and "more user-friendly." Paul brought up an incident where a contractor experienced unacceptable delays in getting a job inspected. Capello said that was "a unique situation."
The board and Capello have yet to settle problem of covering for him when he is on vacation. Capello would like to swap hours with another inspector from another town while selectmen prefer he has a deputy.
Selectmen agreed to Judge's request that they write to the Department of Transportation supporting the Heritage Commission that the rails between Route 16 and Turntable Park not be removed.
The board approved having the Highway Department plow the Food Pantry lot next door.
Selectmen approved appointing Robert McChesney as an alternate to the Heritage Commission.
The Heritage Commission will hold a Christmas Open House at Union Station on Monday, Dec. 3, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Work on renovating the Union blacksmith shop has begun, with electricity installed.
Paul reported that 2013 budget currently has a 6.2 percent increase over 2012, with warrant articles no included. The Budget Committee is reviewing it now.
The contract with Certified Computer Solutions for servicing town computer was approved for $5,970 and payment of a residual ambulance bill for $104 was waived at the request of Fire Chief Todd Nason.
The next meeting of the Wakefield Board of Selectmen will be on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall meeting room.