Hollis struggles to preserve land as farmers struggle to keep going

For years, Hollis has been a model for preserving open space. But there are limits to that commitment. A prominent example is the recently failed bid by the town to purchase about 90 acres of the Woodmont Orchards located on the east side of Route 122.

Robert and Stephen Lievens, owners of the orchard, sold the property to Steven Moheban, a Massachusetts developer, saying they were unable to wait for the town to come up with the government grants it planned to use to complete the sale.

The failed purchase would have complemented a roughly 180-acre parcel of the Woodmont Orchards the town bought four years ago for $3.25 million. That property is located on the west side of Route 122 and includes the iconic Ice House, recently demolished and replaced with a reproduction.

Even without the purchase, about 20 percent of the town’s land is set aside for conservation, and many consider Hollis a poster child for land preservation. But it shows that this affluent town has a limit to what taxpayers are willing to spend on protecting open land, as was also evidenced in 2006, by the defeat of a $3 million land bond.

Until September, officials expected the Woodmont deal to go through.

But after the town learned that it would have to wait for a federal ranch and farmlands conservation grant it had applied for, the seller backed out.

“Woodmont needed the cash flow to cover the costs of the fall harvest,” Town Administrator Troy Brown said. “Financially, they weren’t able to wait, and unfortunately, it’s an area the town would have loved to preserve.”

Disappointment wasn’t limited to Town Hall.

“Things don’t always move at a pace that you’d like them to, unfortunately,” said Peter Baker, a member of the land protection study committee, which is charged with identifying and recommending land purchases.

Farm Pressures

Even when the town buys land, it is unable to guarantee the preservation of scenic views. Farms depend on farmers, whose work is tedious, physically demanding and always complicated by the fickle hand of Mother Nature. Left untended, the idyllic stretches of trees and earth eventually turn to unsightly brush.

Earlier this year, the town launched a marketing campaign to interest farmers in leasing parcels of the Woodmont property it owns.

A lease the town has with the Lievens brothers expires Dec. 31. Officials are hoping to attract new, local farmers to lease the land, a strategy that came out of a brainstorming meeting held last summer between local farmers and members of the land study protection committee.

What the group discussed was sobering: local farming is on the decline; children of farmers are choosing careers that are less physically demanding and more lucrative.

Farmers also observed that while residents appreciate the lovely views and pristine open spaces, they are impatient and even intolerant of what comes with the territory: the early morning sounds of farmers spraying, the occasional tractor that slows traffic, and the pungent smell of manure.

“People like the farm to be there, but on their terms,” said Rob Johnson, executive director of the New Hampshire Farm Bureau, a nonprofit advocacy group that oversees 10 county farm bureaus in the state, including one in Hillsborough County.

Hollis hay farmer Carroll Spaulding, 78, bought his parents’ dairy farm, Spaulding Farms, in 1964 and ran it until he retired in 1986 and sold the land to a developer.

The farm, started by Spaulding’s grandfather, had 50 cows.

“Now, we don’t have a cow or a chicken in the town,” Spaulding said.

Like town officials, Spaulding said he understands that the town can’t save every piece of open land.

“I hate to see housing being built, but what else can you do?” he asked.

Likewise, Elizabeth Woods, whose late husband, Arthur, spent his life farming here, said she understands why the Lievens brothers couldn’t delay the sale.

“Farmers don’t have savings in the bank, only land to sell. It’s their inheritance to their kids. It’s such hard work and very few kids want to be farmers,” she said.

Seeking a balance

Other residents reflected that the future of open spaces depends on creating a balance between open and developed land.

Dr. David Gilmour, for example, a member of the town’s land study protection group and a longtime conservation advocate, said he’s hopeful that the developer who purchased the Woodmont parcels will work with the town to preserve the land’s natural splendor.

Moheban has not returned messages from the newspaper seeks a comment on his plans for the property; Robert Leivens said last month that Moheban doesn’t have any immediate plans to develop the land in the current economic climate.

“The land is so beautiful and how it’s retained for future generations depends on how the developer develops it,” Gilmour said, adding, “The committee is eager to work with him to make it a conservation-minded development.”