Selectmen OK special meeting

HOLLIS – Selectmen signed off Monday night on the warrant for the Special Town Meeting that could potentially determine the fate of Woodmont Orchard, the town’s northern gateway.

The owners, Robert and Stephen Lievens, are offering 180 acres on Silver Lake Road/Route 122 to the town for more than $3 million, pending a final appraisal.

The Special Town Meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 16 in the Hollis/Brookline High School auditorium.

Last week, Land Protection Study Committee members made their case for buying Woodmont. The group said the parcel is its No. 1-targeted land purchase. A similar proposal to buy the orchard in 2002 failed by 50 votes.

Gerry Gartner, LPSC chairman, said there was confusion in 2002 over the use of pesticides on the orchard. According to studies and environmental reports commissioned by both the town and developers, there are elevated levels of some pesticides in certain areas of the orchard.

But the committee brought in experts from Aries Engineering in Concord and the state Department of Environmental Services last week to assuage residents’ worries on that front.

The committee and members of the Board of Selectmen have said repeatedly that owning Woodmont would not only protect open space from development, it would also be a long-term investment for the town.

“Last week’s presentation really made it clear that the pesticide issue is really a nonissue,” Selectman Peter Baker said. “Woodmont is the crown jewel of Hollis, and we can have it for a fair price.”

Gartner said last week that if the town does not purchase the orchard, the Lievens brothers have a competing offer for the parcel, and it would almost certainly be developed for housing.

Richard Roach, a South River Road resident, attended the selectmen’s meeting just to encourage the board to recommend the purchases.

“It seems to me that the selectmen’s recommendation is an important part of the community’s decision,” Roach said. “I did take the opportunity to ride up in my car, and when I saw the view from the most elevated part of the orchards, I thought it was pretty clear that unless the town does avail itself of the opportunity to purchase it, it will inevitably be developed.”

However, Police Chief Richard Darling, who attended Monday night’s meeting to present his draft department budget, said he wasn’t sure purchasing Woodmont should be a town priority.

“I’m concerned as a department head that we’re considering spending $4 million on land when our municipal buildings are in dire need of attention,” he said.

Darling said he was afraid town voters won’t pass a proposed $3 million bond to expand the police and fire stations next March if they have already opened their wallets for preserving land.

“I understand the philosophy behind buying conservation land, but we have to start looking at the infrastructure of this town,” he said.

The purchase of 80 acres referred to as the Siergiewicz Forest Land is also on the Special Town Meeting warrant. Located at Truell and Mooar Hill roads, the property sits near the town forest and other protected land near South Merrimack Road. The town is proposing spending $825,000 (including the cost of site studies and related legal fees) for the parcel.

Since 2001, voters in Hollis have predetermined the amount of bonding authority they would set aside for land purchases at the annual Town Meeting in March. Toward the end of each year, after the LPSC has considered all of the available properties, the town has come together at a Special Town Meeting to consider individual parcels and vote on whether to purchase them.

This year, the LPSC’s desired purchases would require about $4 million of the $5 million that was set aside by voters.