Concerns resurface in preserve debate

MERRIMACK – A 2½-hour roundtable discussion about the Horse Hill Nature Preserve on Thursday ended with the Board of Selectmen hung up over the same issue that split the previous board last year: who should ultimately have management control over the 563-acre property?

The board ultimately tabled discussions on that issue until its last meeting in January, after the proposed 2005-06 budget has been set and reviewed by the Budget Committee.

Last year, in a 3-2 vote, selectmen decided responsibility should ultimately fall on town staff. The issue resurfaced Thursday through a circuitous route: a recommendation that an ad hoc committee of volunteers, under the oversight of the Community Development director, draft a definitive plan for the preserve.

Selectmen’s Chairman Dick Hinch said the definitive plan would exactly follow the master plan adopted by the board last year and set down specific uses and non-uses for the large tract of field, woods and swamp located south of Amherst Road in the west-central part of town.

The plan would specify, among other things, that 500 contiguous acres would remain open space, as much as 50 acres would be developed into ball fields, and sensitive wetlands and wildlife habitat areas would be identified, noted Community Development Director Walter Warren.

But for Selectman Carolyn Whitlock, the act of drafting a definitive plan treaded too close to management responsibilities. She objected to putting that in the hands of a committee of volunteers, albeit ones passionate about and intimately familiar with the property.

“Because of the price tag, I think we need a town employee to be responsible – mega responsible . . . not just in an oversight or advisory capacity,” Whitlock said.

She said she wasn’t prepared on Thursday to decide who should be responsible for the definitive plan.

Residents at the 2002 Town Meeting voted to spend $4.3 million in tax money to keep the land out of developers’ hands. Since then, a master plan committee spent months of work on studying the preserve and recommending a set of permitted uses, such as hiking and hunting, and restricted activities, such as all-terrain vehicle and off-road vehicle use.

The master plan committee evolved into the current ad hoc committee. In the interim, two new selectmen were elected to the board, and a new town manager and community development director were hired.

Hinch and Selectman David McCray argued that the ad hoc committee should be assigned the task of drafting the definitive plan. McCray objected to the board dragging its feet when a committee of volunteers was prepared to work on writing the plan, under Warren’s oversight. Last year, Hinch and McCray favored turning over management to the Conservation Committee, which would work closely with the ad hoc committee, a proposal the majority of the board rejected.

Selectman Chuck Mower, elected to the board in April, sided with Whitlock. The other new member of the board, Tom Koenig, said he needed more information about the issue.

Some progress was made Thursday on the preserve. Most notably, the board charged Warren, working with the committee, to prepare a plan to create a parking area off Amherst Road to open access to the land. Warren will return to the board next week with specific information.

Currently, the only people visiting Horse Hill are nearby residents and people passionate about the preserve, Mower said. He said there isn’t an easy or safe place for most residents to get onto the land.

Mower said he frequently fields questions from residents who ask, “ ‘Hey, how do I get to the Horse Hill Nature Preserve?’ I tell them, ‘you don’t,’ ” Mower said. “We have to make it user-friendly for everybody,” he said.

Land would be cleared and gravel set down to create a parking area large enough for at least 10 cars, under a recommendation presented the board by Tim Tenhave, who chairs the ad hoc committee. The work would be done by a combination of volunteers, town employees and contractors, at a cost of $3,000 or less, estimated Andy Powell, the Conservation Commission chairman who participated in the roundtable discussion. “Whatever it takes, I’d like to get this open so we can put some cars on it this winter,” Powell said.

The discussion also included Planning Board Chairman Nelson Disco, acting Town Manager Bill Mulligan, and Tim Tieperman, the newly hired town manager, who doesn’t officially start work until Jan. 2.

A second parking area will be created in 2006 along Naticook Road near a Public Service of New Hampshire power line right of way, under the recommendation.

The other issues discussed was putting more signs on the land and preventing vehicles, such as ATVs, from gaining access to sensitive wetlands.