February 16, 2012WAKEFIELD — Conservation Commission Chair Dave Mankus came to the Wakefield Board of Selectmen's Feb. 8 meeting with a purchase and sale agreement for 114 acres of land and waterfront at Union Meadows for $150,000.
The net cost to the town, thanks to grants from three sources, is likely to be only $30,000, and that will come from money already in the town's conservation fund. As a result there will be no tax impact.
Despite that favorable news, some in the audience objected to the terms of sale, which include the acceptance of federal funds administered by the N.H. Fish and Game department.
The purchase of this land, which includes two lots covering a large area along the Branch River down to the Union Meadows dam, has been pursued by the Wakefield Conservation Commission for some time. The land abuts properties already placed in conservation and is accessible from Route 153 via Marsh Road.
Mankus had negotiated personally with the landowner during a trip to Florida and had reached the $150,000 price by excluding a parcel north of Marsh Road that is a buildable lot with a septic design. The Conservation Commission has already secured a $50,000 grant from the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) and a $85,000 grant from N.H. Fish and Game, leaving only $15,000 to be contributed by the town from its conservation fund. Mankus explained that once the purchase price was settled, Fish and Game became concerned about how little the town was contributing, and it was decided to take a different approach to how much Fish and Game would contribute, based on the value of an easement instead of the final purchase price.
The original 121-acre properties, including the buildable lot, had been assessed at $230,000. Excluding that lot brought the value of an easement down to $120,000, which would be the maximum contributed by LCHIP and Fish and Game. That would leave the town portion at $30,000.
Despite the increase in the town's share, Mankus was quick to point out that it is still a good deal for the town. He said originally the Conservation Commission was looking at paying $30-40,000, and that Fish and Game was willing to spend up to the original $85,000 on the other costs associated with acquiring the land, so the likely final cost to be paid from the conservation fund should not exceed $30,000, depending on how the required "Federal yellow book" appraisal comes out. Because of that required appraisal, Mankus said, the closing will probably not take place before July.
The $30,000 to be spent on the purchase will not deplete the conservation fund. Mankus wrote in a followup e-mail after the meeting that "There is about $110,000 in Fund Three, the greater portion left from a $500,000 warrant article voters approved several years ago for the purpose of buying conservation land or easements, the lesser part from current use conversions – that is a tax levied for taking land out of current use which the voters approved to be used for this purpose. I am wary of the use of the word 'Town' as it is more correctly 'Towns dedicated Conservation Fund' and can't be used for any other purpose or returned. So we will expend from this fund $30,000 maybe a little more and have $80,000 or a little less remaining for other projects."
The lots to be purchased is owned by two trusts, the Webber Trust and the Harding Trust. The Webber Trust provides college scholarships to Wakefield students, and rightnow, according to Makus, it can only pay for the first year of college based on timber sales. After the sale the trust will gain $75,000 which could result in $3,000 a year for scholarships. The town would lose $1,200 in property taxes but gain $1,800 more in scholarship funds.
Once the Board of Selectmen signs the purchase and sale agreement, the process can proceed to the appraisal and closing. The appraisal would be put out for bids.
All three selectmen were in favor of the purchase, though Selectman Peter Kasprzyk recused himself because he had worked as a forester on the property when timber was harvested last year. Selectman Mark Duffy said "It's a great price and a good deal." Selectman Chair Ken Paul pointed out that the town would be getting 114 acres for $30,000 – $263 an acre – and noted "the Salmon Falls River is the most endangered watershed in the state," and the purchase will help protect it.
As for uses, Mankus pointed out that while Fish & Game, as a condition of its grant, would not allow wheeled vehicles on the properties and limit overnight camping to three times a year, snowmobiling would be allowed, as would hiking and fishing in a river that stocked by the state. Timber harvesting is also permitted, which would be a future source of revenue for maintenance.
Town Administrator Teresa Williams said there would have to be public hearings to accept the grant monies, but she would have to check whether the board could sign the purchase and sales agreement now.
Comments followed from the audience.
Donna Faucette wanted the town to make sure there are escape clauses in case the funding does not come through. She also said she was concerned that a forest fire would diminish the value of the lots. Mankus responded that the lots have already been thinned and are largely open space, so a forest fire is unlikely.
Relf Fogg said that while overnight tent camping may be allowed, he didn't think Fish and Game would allow a jamboree with multiple Boy Scout troops.
Videographer Ed Comeau, who runs the Web site governmentoversite.com, urged that selectmen not sign the agreement. He said the N.H. House is considering HB 1634, a bill that would outlaw implementation of Agenda 21, a United Nations plan involving land conservation.
Mankus responded that, while he has his own reservations about the U.N., he doesn't think that the constitution is endangered by conserving land. "I don't link this to a U.N. agenda but to things like Yellowstone Park and the national park system."
Comeau responded in turn that if people are aware of Agenda 21, then it was OK with him, but he was concerned that "quietly lots are being assembled to create wildlife corridors, per Agenda 21."
Kasprzyk said "All parties are aware that they are putting the land in a conservation easement in perpetuity. No one is being misled."
Steve Brown said he was in favor of buying the properties but not in favor of "giving up control of the land to the federal government." He said the town should raise the $85,000 itself and no accept a federal grant.
Fogg said he used to think sustainable development was a good idea, but having learned about Agenda 21 he is concerned. Like Brown he would like to get the easement but doesn't like the idea of "taking things from the top down."
Duffy pointed out that the state owns all the lakes and dams. Kasprzyk said the school is already accepting federal grants. Paul did grant that if the town paid instead of accepting the grant "you could camp any time you like."
Mankus said he agreed with Brown on many issues, but in this case you could not buy the properties without the grant. "It's a good use of funds, and the easement is held by Fish and Game," not the fed. "It's a good thing to be preserved. It could be a gravel pit."
Paul gave his view that there should be a limit on the amount of land that towns and the federal government could own.
Mankus said, "The ultimate argument for conservation is Central Park: what would New York City be without it?"
John Hildreth said he used to live across the road from Union Meadows and there used to be two boat landings. "Now there are none." He also pointed out that now there is only one boat on the river, and it's a power boat.
Kasprzyk said, "When we obtaining the Laughlin lot we did allow a part of the lot to be used for a landing."
Johnny Blackwood asked, "Who is going to clean up the trash?" He said he went canoeing on the Saco River and was amazed at the amount of trash there.
Mankus said Union Meadows is not likely to have thousands of visitors like the Saco River. He also said parking would be placed near the road to allow keeping an eye on littering.
Chairman Paul brought the discussion to an end by asking that the agreement be placed on the agenda for the next meeting on Feb. 22.