Local Support for Land Conservation Remains Strong, but Funding is Greatly Diminished

March 26, 2009

Local Support for Land Conservation Remains Strong, but Funding is Greatly Diminished

Concord, NH, March 27, 2009 — This year 17 communities throughout New Hampshire voted at Town Meetings to appropriate a total of $268,038 to conserve land in their towns, according to a survey conducted by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

The towns that voted to appropriate funding included Alstead, Cornish, Erroll, Francestown, Grantham, Groton, Harrisville, Holderness, Jaffrey, Lee, Lyme, Plaistow, Rumney, Sullivan, Sunapee, Swanzey, and Warner. The towns of Bradford, Fitzwilliam, Newington, and Windham voted down conservation appropriations.

A total of $5,439,038 was requested this year, but most of this amount reflected one petitioned article in Windham that proposed a $5 million bond for conservation. Of the articles that passed, the average amount appropriated was a modest $21,000. The highest amount to pass was $70,000, when Erroll voters agreed to appropriate that amount from timber harvest proceeds on the Erroll Town Forest.

One high-profile project that did not receive funding was the 148-acre Battles Farm in Bradford. Voters there rejected a petition to appropriate $96,000 to purchase on a conservation easement on the historic working farm, which also features important wildlife habitat and iconic views.

One of the more innovative resolutions in support of local conservation efforts was put forward in New Durham, where 116 out of 150 town meeting attendees voted to authorize the board of selectmen to vigorously pursue the permanent conservation of a 2,000-acre property overlooking Merrymeeting Lake. The “vigorous pursuit” was to include the submission by the select board of a warrant article to the 2010 town meeting asking voters to raise and appropriate an amount not to exceed $1 million toward the purchase of the property. New Durham Selectman Ron Gehl explained that a vote of support for the resolution could improve the town’s chances of securing additional funding for the project through state and federal grants.

Although the overall success rate for conservation funding articles was 82 percent, the amount of money approved was greatly reduced from the conservation appropriations of previous years. In 2008 the total amount requested across the state was $4.7 million, of which $2.4 million was approved. In 2007 $3.8 million was approved out of $8 million requested. The highest amount ever appropriated in a given year was $35.6 million in 2003.

According to Forest Society Policy Director Chris Wells, the downward trend isn’t surprising, given the amount of funding approved earlier this decade and the current financial climate.

“We weren’t really expecting towns to be raising a lot of new money this year,” Wells said. “However, we were interested to see whether towns would roll back conservation funding they already had in place.”

Twelve towns entertained proposals this year to reduce or eliminate land use change tax (LUCT) revenue going to land conservation. The Land Use Change Tax (LUCT) is assessed when land is taken out of current use status to be developed. Towns may elect to have some or all of that one-time LUCT tax put into the town’s conservation fund. Currently, 160 New Hampshire municipalities use LUCT revenues to fund local conservation efforts. Residents in 75 percent of these communities voted the proposals down, opting to retain conservation funding through the LUCT.

“By a two-to-one margin, citizens voted to continue funding conservation projects using revenue from the Land Use Change Tax,” said Wells. “Many communities prefer to put money aside for conservation purchases this way rather than via appropriations or bonds.”

A measure designed to allow conservation commissions more flexibility was welcomed by many communities: Sixty-seven percent of towns voted to adopt SB381 provisions, which authorize the use of municipal conservation funds for projects sponsored by private land trusts without the town holding a legal interest in the property, helping communities to stretch local funds and reduce long-term liabilities. The provision also enables towns to invest in conservation projects outside the municipal boundaries. More information about SB381 can be found on the Forest Society’s web site at forestsociety.org/issues.

I’m encouraged by the results of this town meeting season,” said Carol Andrews, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Conservation Commissions. “This was the first year that towns had the option of voting on these provisions Forty-one towns had SB381-related articles on the warrant, and most passed by a comfortable margin.

“It’s clear that New Hampshire’s citizens continue to support local conservation initiatives, even in the most challenging of economic times.”

The Forest Society’s town meeting survey is made possible by the work of dedicated volunteers, who call town clerks in every town in New Hampshire and compile warrant language and voting information.  Volunteers on this year’s survey included Kurt Gotthardt, Mary “Timmy” Miller, Claudia Payne, Linda Rauter, Anne Sweet and Tanya Tellman.  Thank you!

Founded in 1901, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests is the state’s oldest and largest non-profit land conservation organization. Supported by 10,000 families and businesses, the Forest Society’s mission is to perpetuate the state’s forests by promoting land conservation and sustainable forestry. For more information, visit www.forestsociety.org.