Open land, open question

HOLLIS – Now that voters have approved the largest and most expensive land purchases in town history, it’s time for town officials and residents to decide what to do with all that land.

At the Special Town Meeting on Thursday night, voters approved spending $3.25 million to acquire the 180-acre parcel known as Woodmont Orchard West, and approved spending another $825,000 on the 80-acre Siergiewicz Forest tract.

During presentations at the meeting, Land Protection Study Committee Chairman Gerry Gartner presented a plan for the use of Woodmont.

He said jokingly, “Are we going to be like the dog who chases a car and finally catches it? What will we do with it?”

Gartner said owners Robert and Stephen Lievens have written a letter expressing their intent to lease the land from the town and farm it for the next 10 years, with an option to continue for another 10 years after that. In the meantime, Gartner said Thursday night that the town will probably form some sort of land stewardship committee to manage the town’s conservation properties.

According to Gartner, the 2006 tax impact of the Woodmont purchase, using a 15-year bond with a 4 percent interest rate, would be 33 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation, decreasing annually to 18 cents per $1,000 in 2021.

“On (Woodmont), the next step is to get the appraisal report,” selectmen’s Chairman Mark Johnson said Thursday. Selectmen said Monday night that the appraisal may arrive as soon as next week.

If the parcel appraises at higher value than what the town offered, Johnson said Thursday that the town would not offer the Lievens brothers more money. The town would essentially be getting a discount on the property because of the purchase and sales agreement that is already in place.

If the land appraises for less, then the town would not be obligated to honor its offer and would make an offer equivalent to the appraised value.

However, Johnson said it is unlikely the land will appraise for less, because a 2002 appraisal valued the land at $3.1 million.

According to Gartner, the 2006 tax impact of the Siergiewicz purchase using a 15-year bond with a 4 percent interest rate would be 8 cents per $1,000 valuation, declining annually to 5 cents per $1,000 in 2021.

There isn’t a signed purchase and sales agreement for the Siergiewicz property as of yet, so securing that document would be the town’s next step toward completing the purchase. After the sales have closed, the two purchases would have to be bonded.

After last Thursday’s vote, Johnson said the next piece of town conservation business will be for the LPSC to decide how much it wants to ask voters to “pre-approve” for land purchases in its 2005 warrant article. Johnson said selectmen and LPSC members had wanted to postpone the budget discussion until after getting a sense of voters’ feelings at the Special Town Meeting.

Johnson said, “I think (the votes) mean that the voters understand the tangible and intangible values of open land.”

The total 2006 tax impact of the two purchases on a $350,000 home would be about $144. These two purchases aside, the owner of a $350,000 home is already projected to pay $179 in 2006 toward debt service for previous land purchases.