December 06, 2012WAKEFIELD — Selectmen held the second of two required public hearings on accepting $135,000 in grants to purchase 121 acres of Union Meadows on Nov. 28.
Near the end of the hearing Selectman Chair Ken Paul said the only negative comments he has heard about the project were those few given at the two hearings. "I'm not getting any calls about this," he said. Selectman Peter Kasprzyk said his experience was the same.
That perception changed when resident Jerry O'Connor, who has been one of the critics of the purchase at meetings, presented selectmen with a petition signed by 58 Wakefield residents demanding that the land purchase be put on the March 2013 town warrant to let the voters decide if they wanted to purchase the land for conservation purposes.
The petition is allowed under state RSA 41:14-a, which states "upon the written petition of 50 registered voters presented to the selectmen, prior to the selectmen's vote [to acquire a property], according to the provisions of RSA 39:3, the proposed acquisition or sale shall be inserted as an article in the warrant for the town meeting."
Town Administrator Teresa Williams confirmed on Friday, Nov. 30, that the requested warrant article was being written.
Concern about the feds
The property in question consists of 121 acres of land and marsh that lies east and alongside the Branch River above the dam in Union. Abutting Meadows properties to the south are already in conservation. The purchase price for the six lots involved was negotiated with the owner by Conservation Commission Chair Dave Mankus at $150,000. Once the price was agreed Mankus secured a $50,000 grant from the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) and an $85,000 grant from N.H. Fish and Game, leaving a purchase balance of $15,000 to be paid from existing town conservation funds. The cost of a survey (already completed) and closing costs will take another $20,000 from conservation funds.
Of the two grants, the $85,000 from N.H. Fish & Game generated most of the controversy. In return for the grant Fish and Game will purchase a conservation easement on the property that will limit activities that can take place there to "low impact." While hunting, fishing and hiking would be allowed, overnight camping will only be allowed three weekends a year by youth groups like the Boy Scouts. Motorized vehicles would not be allowed, though a parking lot off Marsh Road at the north end can be improved.
Resident Jim Miller said he and a number of people who have read the proposed easement "are troubled by it." He said he had the "misconception that Fish and Game and the feds were helping us buy the land when it is actually the other way around."
He said he thought the goal was recreational use, but it is actually to preserve a wildlife habitat. He pointed out that many things are not allowed by the easement – no structures, including a dock. "We can put in a parking lot for 15 cars but need permission. We can't disturb the soil within 50 feet of the river…We can use snowmobiles but not 'motorized vehicles.' We can hunt and fish and observe wildlife – that's it."
He went on to complain that the town needs to come up with a stewardship plan, which Fish and Game can reject. He also pointed out according to easement the town has to plan for 10 years before any forestry activities can take place.
"There seem to be a lot of escape routes for Fish and Game and the feds: they can replace the property…If sold, they get the same percentage as they invested." In short, he concluded, "there seems to be one way in and no way out for the town."
Selectman Peter Kasprzyk responded by pointing out that the state already imposes restriction on activities near bodies of water, limiting disturbance up to 250 feet for a lakefront home, and limiting forestry activities near water bodies.
He said that when the town first talked about the property there was concern about allowing snowmobiles because of their effect on deer. It turns out set snowmobile trails do not disturb as much because deer get used to them. There are also access points for canoes and rowboats even though there is not a dock.
"You can look at it as someone is giving us the property and paying us $5,000, after you count the payment made to the Wakefield scholarship fund," Kasprzyk said. Putting the land into conservation can only improve hunting and fishing as well as water quality, he concluded.
Keith Fletcher, Director of Land Conservation at Moose Mountain Regional Greenways (MMRG) in Union, said the easement document spells out what is allowed. For example, disturbing the soil means digging and quarrying, not any other disturbance. The basic idea is protect the land for future generations. "Right now we are low density, but development will come," he said.
He noted that the funds for the Fish and Game grant came from sales of ammunition, to improve hunting. He added that Fish and Game wanted to buy the property itself but the Conservation Commission worked for a year to arrange for the town to purchase the lots.
Conservation Commission Chair Dave Mankus corrected Miller, saying the Stewardship Plan was the responsibility of Fish and Game, not the town.
MMRG Executive Director Virginia Long said, "There is a way out for the town. The town owns the land and can sell it."
Resident Relf Fogg said he would prefer to buy the land based on a town warrant article. He said he changed his mind on the value of the purchase when he found out the language in the easement was the same for 99 percent of easements in the region and, he asserted, was part of the United Nation's "Agenda 21" plan. "Do we want to get into that?" he asked. "What is the hidden cost?"
O'Connor pointed out the $75,000 from the purchase price is not going directly into scholarships for Wakefield students, but rather into an endowment where scholarships are given based on interest earned. He also said he was concerned that MMRG's Fletcher was not a lawyer and asked if the easement has had a legal review.
It was noted that Town Counsel reviews all legal documents.
Fogg also raised the fact that the town paid too much money the buy "development rights" to a property on Witchtrot Road. Kasprzyk responded that he fought against the Witchtrot proposal and said that the lesson from that was that the town needs to find other ways to get conservation easements without spending "major money": the Union Meadows property is an example of a cost-effective easement.
Speaking in favor of accepting the grants and purchasing the Union Meadows property were residents Sue Ducharme, Pam Judge and Dave Tinkham.
Ducharme said she didn't see any problem with tax dollars going to protect this property. "Water quality protection is critical," she said. "Wakefield has lots of water and it should be protected in perpetuity." She pointed out that only seven percent of the town's land is in conservation.
Judge made three points: 1) "This is a beautiful piece of land at a good price;" 2) "Don't get worked up about easements: I've seen many in my 39 years in real estate and many people in town has PSNH easements regarding power poles;" and 3) "People should walk the property and see what they are buying." She said the Heritage Commission walked the land before voting to endorse the purchase.
Tinkham said "Water quality is everyone's responsibility. The Salmon Falls watershed is in trouble. If water quality goes, there goes your property values."
Chairman Paul said the Salmon Falls watershed is listed as the third most endangered watershed in the state.
The hearing closed when O'Connor delivered the petition with 58 signatures asking that the purchase be put to voters in a warrant article.
Mankus said after the meeting that the sale has been in the works for more than a year and was originally supposed for have closed in July. The closing date has had several extensions already, with the latest being by the end of December. He was concerned that the owner might not agree to extend the deadline in the purchase and sale agreement signed by the town until March to see if the sale will go through at last.