Hollis discusses land purchase plan

HOLLIS – The Land Protection Study Committee lobbied again on Monday night for its number one targeted land purchase, the 180-acre parcel known as Woodmont Orchard West.

In a couple of weeks, with the Board of Selectmen’s blessing, the committee will ask voters to consider buying Woodmont from owners Robert and Stephen Lievens for $3.2 million, using $5 million set aside for land purchases at the last Town Meeting.

About 50 people gathered at Town Hall for an informational meeting about why they should consider buying the property this time around when a similar proposal to buy the orchard in 2002 failed by 50 votes.

The Land Protection Study Committee might not even exist if it weren’t for Woodmont Orchard, according to committee Chairman Gerry Gartner.

“For years, people would say, ‘How are we going to save Woodmont?’ ”

Gartner said this year’s proposal differs the committee’s 2002 proposal in many ways. In 2002, the purchase would not have included land set aside for a potential seven-lot subdivision, plans that had been submitted by Z&L Developers of Merrimack. Those homes were never built, and this year’s proposal is to purchase the entire parcel.

Gartner said in 2002, there was much confusion over the potential environmental issues that might arise from pesticides used on the land. The land has been actively farmed for 100 years, according to Gartner, and there are elevated levels of some agricultural chemicals in areas of the orchard.

The committee brought in experts Wednesday night from Aries Engineering in Concord as well as the state Department of Environmental Services to speak about chemical test results from the property, and to answer questions.

Previous tests on the land by Stone Hill Environmental in Portsmouth indicated that there are traces of lead, arsenic, DDT and DDE at Woodmont – all of which were commonly used pesticides at one time.

According to Rob Palermo, a risk assessor with Ariesneering, the risk of developing an illness from the leftover chemicals was just slightly higher than acceptable (1.74 adults out of 100,000 versus the acceptable state level of 1 in 100,000) if the land were to be developed for residential housing. Palermo said the location could easily be made safe by means of a soil management plan, if the land were to be developed.

However, because the town would be purchasing the land to prevent it from being developed, Palermo said the risks are essentially void. Palermo said that none of the pesticides has shown up in any surrounding wells.

Mike Sills, chief engineer with the DES, said, “This is not a remedial site. This is not a cleanup site as far as the state is concerned.”

If the town purchases Woodmont, Gartner said the committee has a plan to keep the farm running as an agricultural operation. He said the Lievens brothers have tentatively agreed to farm the land for the next 10 years, with an option to continue for another 10 years. The town would form a soil-management plan to ensure that the topsoil is properly handled to avoid any environmental risk.

Officials say besides protecting the open vistas on the northern entrance to town, town ownership of Woodmont has other benefits, including protecting nearby aquifers and avoiding the traffic impact that would result from development.

If the town does not purchase the orchard, Gartner said the Lievens brothers have a competing offer of $18,500 an acre, and it would almost certainly be developed for housing.

The land protection committee also provided information about another potential land purchase, the 80-acre tract referred to as the Siergiewicz forest land. The Siergiewicz property is at the junction of Truell and Mooar Hill roads, near 300 acres that is being protected north of South Merrimack Road.

Committee members said the purchase would extend the town forest, provide a zone of protection from development along Route 101A as well as provide a wildlife habitat. The land abuts future potential land acquisitions, according to the committee.

If the town were to purchase Woodmont using a 20-year bond with a 4.5 percent interest rate, the tax impact would be $31 per $100,000 valuation in the first year, decreasing annually to $17 in 2026, Gartner said.

If the town were to purchase the Siergiewicz property using a 20-year bond with a 4.5 percent interest rate, the tax impact would be $8 per $100,000 valuation in the first year, decreasing annually to $4 in 2026.

Residents had varied reactions to the committee’s presentation. Jim Belanger, a longtime resident and moderator for the town’s two school districts, urged his neighbors to consider the financial impact of the purchases.

“Preserving the rural character is certainly a noble cause . . . but the rural character I knew is gone,” Belanger said. “How many of us have deep pockets? It’s not a question of digging deeper. It’s a question of not having it at all. How many times have we stood at Town Meeting and said our children can’t afford to live here?”

Madeline Williams, who has lived in town for seven years, said Wednesday night that she would be willing to “dig deeper,” even though she’s living on a fixed income. She said she used to live in the suburbs of New York City, and said she looked at Hollis as an escape from the urban sprawl of her former home.

“I’m living on a fixed income and I still support it,” Williams said. “When (Belanger) talks about (tax increases) next year, I think ‘Oh my God,’ but on the other hand, you gotta do it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t recover it.”