Conservation group members look at preservation

WILTON – In addition to preserving rural character and quality of life and providing habitat for wildlife and recreation areas for people, conserving open space costs a town less than developing it into house lots. The cost of providing town services such as fire protection and upkeep of roads, but particularly schools, are not covered by the taxes on the average house with children.

On Tuesday, members of the Conservation and Heritage commissions met with Dorothy “Dijit” Taylor of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to discuss ways and means of protecting open spaces in town. Taylor is the society’s expert on fund raising and conservation of resources.

She said the statewide goal is to preserve up to 25 percent of each town. In 1999, she said, Wilton was at 16 percent, the latest figures available, but has added more since, particularly the Four Corners Farm and parts of Carnival Hill.

“About 59 percent of the town’s land is in current use,” Taylor said, “and that provides a lot of opportunity for preservation.”

Purchase of property or conservation easements is expensive, and Taylor was present to talk about funding. The Conservation Commission does not, as those in many towns do, receive a portion of the land-use-transfer tax. This tax is levied on land removed from current use and is 10 percent of the current market value.

“(The tax) is a fairly painless way to fund conservation,” she said, since it is not money raised by taxes. “Another painless way is to use unreserved fund balances (money left over at the end of the fiscal year), since that doesn’t affect the tax rate. But it shouldn’t be used too often,” she added.

Bonding, Taylor said, “is now considered to be acceptable, either for specific parcels, or for general conservation uses. If you have bond money available, you can move more quickly,” and not have to wait for Town Meeting to approve a purchase. Property frequently is not available that long.

A survey of area town meetings last March found open-space projects passed in Brookline, Hollis, Milford, Mont Vernon and Wilton, but failed in Amherst. Amherst did approve bonds in 2002. Hollis has approved open space bonds in each of the past four years.

Funding for specific projects is usually better, Taylor said.

Wording of warrant articles is most important, she said. “You have to spell out who is in charge of the money,” whether the selectmen, the Conservation Commission, or if the voters must approve expenditures.

“You also need to educate the voters on the value of open space to the community, and the costs of community services. You may have to spend some money now (to purchase a property) in order to save more money later. You have to determine the real costs of services, the actual cost to educate each child.”

Since the state’s Land and Community Heritage Investment Program has shifted its decreased funds entirely to preserving open space, committee members asked about historic preservation, particularly old barns and farmhouses. Taylor agreed it was difficult. “Everyone wants to preserve open space, but a barn is just an old building.”

Limited funds are available through the state for historic barns.

You have to look at other sources of funding, she said. The state Fish and Game Department has funds for certain specific species, including waterfowl, and the Forest Legacy is concerned with woodland protection. Other sources include the Farmland Protection Agency and American Farmland Trust.

“And don’t forget foundations and individuals,” she added.

She noted the many conservation areas in town and noted, “You can partner with other projects. People are interested in connecting existing protected areas to provide corridors.”

Among the many handouts Taylor provided was “The Dollars and Sense of Open Space,” a joint study by the forest society and New Hampshire Wildlife Federation. The study notes that the state is growing by about 14,000 people annually.

Among the findings are costs of development.

For instance, in Peterborough, it was found that the 188-home Pine Ridge Development cost the town $128,000 more than it brought in taxes.

“Determine what (properties) you would like acquire,” Taylor said. “Figure outside funds such as gifts and grants, and then create a process for spending money that voters can understand and trust. Determine who will have the ultimate authority to spend it.”

In most towns, that is the selectmen, but sometimes there is an underlying distrust of town officials, she said, and voters want to retain the right to approve expenditures through special town meetings.

Do whatever works, she said.

Jessie Salisbury can be reached at 654-9704 or