Land conservation push costly up front

MILFORD – One of the prettiest views in the region may get preserved as open land, but only if Milford voters decide to support the most expensive conservation push in town history.

“It’s gorgeous there,” said Town Planner Bill Parker, showing on a map of Milford how hills rise in the town’s southwest corner to provide 360-degree views. “There are some beautiful hikes.”

But it’s not just beauty that led the Board of Selectmen to ask voters at Town Meeting for $2.3 million to buy 445 acres at the end of Mile Slip Road – it’s money.

The forested, rolling land was once owned by the founder of OK Tools and then by Marrads Timber Co., but is now owned by Mile Slip Development, which has already presented conceptual plans for building 110 new homes there.

If that many houses are built, the town estimates the development could cost Milford more than $150,000 a year, above and beyond property taxes collected, for such things as fire and police protection, and especially for educating the scores of students who would move in.

Further, new roads built to reach those homes would make it easier to get to adjoining parcels in the last undeveloped part of town, increasing future development and related costs.

Compared to that, argue proponents, even a hefty sum like $2.3 million doesn’t look so bad.

“We would have to pay back a bond (for buying the land) for 20 years. The cost of services for these homes would continue forever,” said Selectman Chairwoman Cynthia Herman.

The purchase would add an estimated 28 cents to the tax rate in its first year, costing a $150,000 home about $42. The tax impact would slowly decline for the rest of the 20-year debt.

The selectmen approved putting the purchase on the warrant at Town Meeting in March by a 3-2 vote, with Noreen O’Connell and Len Manino joining Herman. The cost proved too great a stumbling block for Selectman Larry Pickett, who voted against the warrant.

Also voting against it was Gary Daniels, who has a concern stemming from his dual role as School Board member.

The Milford School District is likely to ask voters in March for a multi-million-dollar building to handle Middle School overcrowding, and won’t welcome competition from a major land-purchase warrant on the town side of the ballot.

“The whole problem I’m having is this versus the school. If we ask too much, people are likely to just say no to everyone,” Daniels said.

It’s not uncommon for major school projects to take several years before getting approval from Milford voters – a Middle School expansion has been turned down four times – but there’s more of a rush this time.

The district only has two years to take roughly $2.5 million in fire-insurance money from the burned Garden Street School and use it to help build a new school, or it will lose the funds.

“We risk throwing out the window two-and-a-half million dollars if (the school warrant) doesn’t pass,” said Daniels.

Herman, a fiscal conservative who looked visibly pained at having to advocate such an expensive item as the land warrant, agreed.

“There’s no part of this that isn’t painful,” she said. “In the long run it’s better, but in the short term it hurts.”

The 445-acre Mile Slip parcel is in the shape of a huge “L” in Milford’s southwest corner, with its left-hand border against the town of Mason and its leg butting up against the Badger Hill development, straddling Brookline.

The Mile Slip parcel is bisected by the dirt portion of Mile Slip Road, a class VI road that becomes very rough before it crosses into Brookline. The road skirts Badger Hill, which at more than 750 feet is the tallest point in town – taller even that Federal Hill in east Milford, which is also known for its views.

The Mile Slip parcel adjoins conversation land in Mason, as well as open land on the Badger Hill development which in turn connects to former Lorden Lumber Co. land bought this year by former selectman Nancy Amato and her husband, Paul, who co-own Alene Candles.

The Amatos want to keep most of that parcel open, and since their land abuts the Hitchiner Town Forest, the possibility exists for creating a wildlife corridor stretching halfway across Milford.

But plenty of development is aimed for this part of town, too, including several dozen homes proposed along the Mason border, north of the Mile Slip parcel.

Several other large open lots still remain in the area.

Buying land to keep it away from development has become an increasingly popular move by Souhegan Valley towns in the past few years, with multi-million-dollar bonds being sought, not always successfully, in Hollis and Amherst.

That push is likely to increase. A new Open Space Committee in Mont Vernon, for example, has made it a long-term goal to preserve 25 percent of that town’s area.