April 05, 2012WAKEFIELD — Normally new selectmen are given a few weeks or months to get up to speed on all the facts, rules and issues before being put on the spot of casting a deciding vote. No such luck for Charlie Edwards, who was elected to take the place of Mark Duffy on the Wakefield Board of Selectmen on March 13.
At Edwards' first meeting on Wednesday, March 28, Conservation Commission Chair Dave Mankus came before the board seeking approval of a bid to survey 114 acres in two Union Meadows properties that the town will be buying for $150,000 with the help of two grants totaling $135,000. An accurate survey is needed to meet the requirements of the two grants and to close on the sale.
Mankus reported he had contacted 300 surveyors and got 26 inquiries and 12 bids. The bids ranged from $8,000 to $36,000 against Mankus' earlier "ballpark" estimate of $15,000. The Conservation Commission recommended a bid of $11,500 by ECM of Bedford as the "most complete." Another consideration was that ECM is a reputable firm who will produce a survey at will satisfy the requirements of the two grants and meet federal standards. The firm has also surveyed more than 6,000 acres of conservation land, so this will not be their first job
Mankus said that he had promised the seller that the town would be able to close on the sale by August, which means the survey needs to be complete by June 1. Since surveyors would need two months to complete the survey, the contract should be signed by April 1. He added Town Counsel Rick Sager had reviewed and approved the contract.
The problem for Edwards arose from two facts: 1) Selectman Peter Kasprzyk had to abstain from voting on the bid contract because he had been hired as a forester by the property owner to manage a recent timber cutting and thus had a potential conflict of interest, which left Edwards and Chairman Ken Paul to approve or reject the bid; and 2) three people present at the meeting spoke against approving the bid contract.
Mankus had discussed the proposed acquisition of the Union Meadows properties several times with selectmen over the past year, and on Feb. 8 he brought in a purchase and sale agreement for the $150,000 price he had personally negotiated with the owner. At that meeting several in the audience, including residents Steve Brown and Relf Fogg, objected to the fact that the Fish & Game funds came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and would involve giving up control of the land to the federal government. Videographer Ed Comeau of www.governmentoversite.com also cautioned the board not to sign because the purchase was part of a U.N. plan under their "Agenda 21" to assemble land for wildlife corridors.
Selectmen deferred a decision on signing the purchase and sale agreement until the board's Feb. 22 meeting. At that meeting Chair Ken Paul and Selectman Duffy voted in favor of signing the agreement. Kasprzyk did not vote because of his potential conflict of interest.
Of the $150,000 purchase price, all but $30,000 of the total price plus the estimated $15,000 survey cost would be paid from two grants secured by the Conservation Commission through Mankus' efforts: one for $50,000 from the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) and a second for $85,000 from N.H. Fish & Game. According to Mankus, the $30,000 to be provided by the Town of Wakefield would be coming from an existing conservation fund, so the purchase will have no tax impact. LCHIP and Fish and Game are not purchasing the property but buying a conservation easement; the town would own the property after the closing.
Brown, Comeau and Fogg were all present again at the March 28 meeting and urged the board not to approve the surveying contract.
Fogg, who is a Conservation Commission member, said there was a concern about using tax dollars to support the UN's Agenda 21.
Mankus said that issue had been discussed at the commission meeting the previous Monday. The funds from Fish and Game were coming from the federal guns and ammunition tax and the LCHIP funds were coming from motor vehicle registration "moose plate" fees – not general taxes.
Brown asked why the contract "repeatedly refers to successor entities" and asked who would succeed Fish and Game. He expressed concerned the federal government would take the land. "Why people ignore this concerns me," he said.
Kasprzyk, who has been the selectmen's representative to the commission, responded that he talked with Rick Cook of Fish and Game about the successor language and Cook said state agencies and departments are being reshuffled all the time: Fish and Game could be moved to another department any time or reorganized, so the language was necessary.
Comeau said he was concerned with the language of the easement document, which he had marked up and e-mailed to selectmen. Among the redlined concerns were who sets the standards for proper use of the land and Brown's issue about successor organizations.
Edwards had his own concerns about acquiring the property, including how much use Wakefield residents can make of the property once it is purchased ("Why buy it if we can't use it?") and the loss of property tax revenue.
Mankus said the property would be open to a wide range of hunting, fishing and recreational uses. "If someone else bought the property they could post it, and no one could use it," he said,
Kasprzyk said the town would lose $1,600 in yearly property taxes but, since half of the proceeds from the land sale ($75,000) will go into a scholarship fund for Wakefield students, the town will get an ongoing benefit that should equal the town's investment. He also said the town could harvest timber on the property and derive income from that.
Edwards also said he was concerned that Fish and Game could change the rules. Mankus said Fish and Game would have to follow the terms of the contract once it's signed.
To end the discussion Paul moved that selectmen sign the contract. Edwards did not second, so the motion died.
Mankus told Edwards if the property is not surveyed, the commission can't complete the deal. He added that the proposal to acquire the land has been on the table for a year.
Edwards said he has the sense that "many people don't want to buy the land."
Mankus countered that the town's share comes from funds already raised, so no new funds would be needed, and then pointed out "You have time to review the contract before the closing [in August]. The survey is just another step along the way."
Edwards said he was not committed to buying the property and needed time to understand what is being proposed. He asked why Fish and Game wasn't buying the property. Kasprzyk responded that the town asked Fish and Game for the money so the town could control the land and be responsible for conserving it.
"I don't like buying land we don't need," Edwards said.
Paul said, "I like this land. We paid five time more for land further down the stream." On earlier occasions and in this meeting Paul had said there should be limits on how much land is placed in conservation, so his commitment to this particular property was significant.
Paul again made the motion to sign the surveying contract. This time Edwards seconded and the motion passed 2-0 with Kasprzyk abstaining.
[Editor's Note: Due to space consideration this week, the remaining items discussed at the March 28 Wakefield selectmen's meeting will be reported next week.]