Finding Balance: 25 of 28 Towns Approve Conservation Appropriations at Town Meeting

By Jack Savage

For those elected officials and professional administrators who bear the responsibility for running New Hampshire’s cities and towns, 2008 is a challenging budget year. The snowplowing season, like your least favorite relative, came early, stayed late and busted the budget throughout the visit. Fuel prices are draining police, highway and school budgets. The cost of road paving, driven in part by oil prices, is painfully high. Education funding formulas turn financial crystal balls cloudy—receiver today, donor tomorrow.

And most important, taxpayers in the state’s 234 communities are feeling the pinch as well—at the supermarket, gas pump and elsewhere—and thus have not been in the mood for investing in municipal infrastructure. In a number of towns in 2008, capital projects of various kinds fell to the taxpayers’ axe at Town Meeting.

And yet land conservation initiatives continued to be favored. According to a survey conducted by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, 83 percent of land conservation appropriations voted on at Town Meeting this year passed. In all, 28 New Hampshire towns voted on 30 warrant articles for land conservation bonds or appropriations at Town Meeting this year.

Granted, the dollar amounts of said appropriations in 2008 are relatively small—you’d be hard-pressed to build even a small school with the total $4.7 million that was on the ballots for conservation at Town Meeting this year. And in the end, 25 towns—or 89 percent of those with conservation spending articles on their warrants—approved $2.4 million collectively.

Small potatoes, sure, and reflective of modest requests in deference to the times. But this is only the latest round of municipal conservation funding. Town appropriations peaked in 2003, when voters approved more than $35 million; since 2001, New Hampshire towns have approved more than $135 million in land conservation appropriations (not including spending by cities, authorized by city council rather than Town Meeting).

And, year after year, the number of towns considering funding land conservation has been relatively consistent, while the success rate of conservation bonds and appropriations has stayed remarkably high. In 2007, for example, measures in 27 of 33 towns—82 percent—won approval. In 2006, 30 of 33 (91 percent) were approved, and in 2005, 29 of 35 measures (83 percent) passed.

Clearly, year after year, voters are just saying yes to land protection in their towns. Why the fuss?

“Voters understand the cost-benefit relationship of open space," said Rick Russman, of Kingston, where citizens appropriated not only $75,000 to be added to the conservation fund this year, but approved the expenditure of $600,000 from the existing conservation fund to go toward the purchase 200 acres in the northwest corner of town.

Kingston is working with the Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire (SLTNH) on the conservation project. The property features a large beaver pond, other wildlife habit and a historic mill site, as well as recreational trails for hiking, biking and snowmobiling. The balance of the $910,000 purchase price will be raised from other sources.

Russman, a former State Senator and current School Moderator, is also an active member of the Friends of Kingston Open Space (FOKUS), an ad hoc group that advocates for land conservation projects in town. From his point of view, Kingston voters are well-informed and FOKUS is the key.

“We’re able to advocate, raise money for outreach, do mailings, and hold local events that promote land conservation," Russman explained. Their success is due in part, Russman said, to working closely with the Conservation Commission and other town boards, as well as establishing a certain amount of credibility among voters in the SB 2 town.

“We try to stay away from the commercial district along Route 125," Russman observed, noting that his group understands that there needs to be an appropriate balance between development and protection.

“Kingston has a pretty sophisticated and well-respected group," agreed Brian Hart, executive director of SLTNH, referring to both FOKUS and the Conservation Commission. “The town has partnered with The Nature Conservancy in the past on protecting frontage along the Powwow River, for example."

Having a good working relationship with a nonprofit land trust can be an advantage. For some towns, there’s value in having an established land trust to hold a conservation easement (and take on the responsibility for ongoing monitoring of that easement) on town-owned conservation land, thus lightening the stewardship obligations of the municipality.

And, said Hart, when it comes to negotiating a transaction with landowners, the non-governmental entity “can offer responsiveness and efficiencies that government doesn’t always have."

Finding that Balance
To a certain extent, it would appear that development itself drives towns to accelerate and fund land protection. As it has been since 2001, the 2008 Town Meeting conservation appropriations were primarily concentrated in towns in the southern tier of the state, where more development has occurred and opportunities to conserve significant land are increasingly rare. For residents, the clock is ticking on the availability of land suitable for conservation.

Although nearly 30 percent of New Hampshire’s 5.9 million acres is conserved, much of that is in the North Country. The White Mountain National Forest accounts for nearly 800,000 of the protected acres, with the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters representing another 171,000.

Drop down to the increasingly developed southern part of the state and the amount of protected land decreases substantially. The Forest Society encourages all towns to consider conserving at least 25 percent of their total land area, leaving up to 75 percent available for residential and commercial development.

And in the southern tier, especially Rockingham County, land protection can get expensive. Among the 25 successful initiatives in 2008 was in Sandown, where voters approved a $1 million bond and authorized the expenditure of an additional $600,000 from the existing conservation fund to purchase 138 acres that abut and will be incorporated into the existing Town Forest.

And while southern tier residents might wish they could turn back the clock and invest in the unbuilt infrastructure for far less money a couple of decades ago, such expense makes imperative that protecting the right land—the land that protects water resources, wildlife habitat, farmland, working forests and historically important community lands—be part of the formula for success. Towns with active conservation commissions and open space committees work hard to determine local land protection priorities.

According to a survey of more than 100 conservation commissions (approximately half of those in the state) conducted in 2007 jointly by the Forest Society and the New Hampshire Association of Conservation Commissions (NHACC), 95 percent of the responding conservation commissions reported that their goal was to protect more land in their respective towns. Nearly half (49 percent) have conducted a Natural Resource Inventory (NRI), and another 26.5 percent said an NRI was in progress. The same survey reported that 26 percent of respondents had a conservation plan in place, with 23 percent having such a plan in progress.

Not surprisingly, it is in many of those same towns that voters, perceiving unchecked development and presented with a land conservation plan, have approved bonds and spending for specific projects or projects to be determined. At the local level, taxpayers want to know their tax dollars are being spent wisely.

Still, discriminate land protection requires willing landowners, and thus can take time to effect. Among the conservation commissions surveyed in 2007, 86 respondents report that, collectively, they have $25 million in their conservation funds for potential projects—though some of that is encumbered for projects in the works.

Leveraging Dollars and Information
Another likely element behind the success of land conservation is that town appropriations often leverage other funds—private funds raised by local land trusts, state funds such as the Land and Community Heritage Fund (LCHIP), and the occasional federal dollar.

In fact, the 2007 conservation commission survey showed that nearly half of respondents had received some sort of grant funding in the past five years. Moreover, 30 percent reported receiving private donations to the conservation fund to supplement municipal dollars, and 20 percent received proceeds from managing lands, such as timber revenues from town forests.

In Mont Vernon this year, residents voted in favor of raising and appropriating up to $445,000 to acquire the Wah Lum (Glorious Forest) Reserve, consisting of two parcels totaling 248 acres in the Purgatory Watershed, long a priority for conservation in the area.

“It’s hard to underestimate the importance of the fundraising we did [prior to Town Meeting]," said Wesley Robertson, chair of the conservation commission in Mont Vernon. “It’s hard to walk away from more than $100,000, which is what we would have had to do if the article didn’t pass."

Mont Vernon is typical of small towns deciding what and when to invest in their infrastructure. Although a bond issue for general conservation failed in 2005 (along with other capital projects), Robertson said that voters have consistently voted in favor of specific land conservation proposals.

“What brings people here is our rural character," Robertson said. “And people are very much in favor of preserving that character."

“In the case of the Wah Lum Reserve, just looking at a map makes it easy to see how much sense it makes to protect the two parcels," said Robertson. “There’s protected land above, between, and below the land we’re protecting—like a club sandwich. By doing this, we’ll create over 500 acres of contiguous conservation land."

A quick visit to the Web site of the Mont Vernon Conservation Commission shows another reason why voters supported the measure, with plenty of background on the project and the partnership with Amherst Land Trust, why it’s important and how it fits into a long term conservation goal, and all the relevant details about the proposed transaction, including public access.

A good project representing land high on the conservation priority list, supported by local boards and presented with good information and additional funding from other sources typically yields a positive reaction by voters.

Land Use Change Tax
Among the sources of revenue often used for land conservation—should the voters approve—is the Land Use Change Tax (LUCT). Here again, voters have consistently upheld the notion that it’s a good idea to use the LUCT to fund land conservation.

The LUCT is assessed when land is taken out of “current use" status—typically subdivided for development. Thus, in theory, as development increases, it increasingly funds potential land conservation elsewhere in town.

Towns may elect to have some or all of that one-time LUCT tax put into the town’s conservation fund. In each of the past five years, selected towns have voted to consider allocating some or all of the LUCT to the conservation fund. And in each of the past five years, a few towns have considered articles to reduce or eliminate the amount of LUCT to go to the conservation fund. They haven’t usually succeeded—this year none did.

This year 18 towns considered articles to increase or reduce the amount of the Land Use Change Tax (LUCT) that will be used for conservation purposes, with 14 of the 18 outcomes (78 percent) supporting conservation spending.

Voters in five towns were considering allocating LUCT to their conservation fund for the first time. Four passed, one failed. Six towns considered articles to increase the percentage of LUCT or keep the percentage at 100 percent. Four passed, two failed.

Another four towns considered articles to reduce the amount of LUCT going to the conservation fund, or eliminate the funding altogether. All of those measures failed. However, in Jaffrey, a measure to cut in half (from 100 to 50 percent) the amount of timber revenues from town lands going to the conservation fund did pass.

In Conclusion
In the end, voters in many towns seem to understand that land conservation—the protection of the most important natural resources within a community—is not only important, timely and a critical element of land use planning, but often comes at a cost. And even in challenging economic times, they are often willing to pay that cost.

Jack Savage is the chair of the planning board in Middleton, New Hampshire, and is the Vice President of Communications and Outreach at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Each year the Forest Society, the state’s largest land conservation organization, surveys all 234 New Hampshire cities and towns to collect land conservation appropriation data.