Legislature OKs Town Contributions to Land Trusts
Clarifying a critical issue for conservation advocates, this session the state legislature passed SB 381, which explicitly authorizes towns to contribute from their conservation funds to projects sponsored by private land trusts without holding a legal interest in the property being conserved.
The bill resolves a gray area in the law that had long divided municipal attorneys and had already been the subject of several unsuccessful legislative efforts. Specifically, the bill added language to the state statute governing town conservation commissions (RSA 36-A) that authorizes them to contribute from their conservation funds to "qualified organizations" for acquisitions of property interests (fee or easement) held by those organizations, and/or expend funds for transaction costs related to these purchases.
Qualified organizations are defined through a reference to the section of the IRS code governing non-profit land conservation organizations. The bill also adds language to statute declaring town expenditures to land trusts be a public purpose because they protect the state's natural resources.
The new statutory authorization does come with strings, however. The law requires one-time Town Meeting votes to locally authorize conservation commissions to make these expenditures. It also requires a similar, but separate, Town Meeting vote to authorize the conservation commission to acquire property interests held by the town outside of municipal boundaries. Once this up-front town Meeting authorization is given, however, no further approvals by town meeting or the governing body (City Council or Board of Selectmen) are required for specific expenditures.
For a seemingly "small" bill, the successful passage of SB 381 required a remarkable amount of work by many legislators, and several deserve special mention: Sen. Peter Burling (D-Cornish), Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-Exeter), Rep. Judith Spang (D-Durham), Rep. Tim Butterworth (D-Walpole), Rep. Robert Theberge (D-Berlin), Rep. Betsey Patten (R-Moultonborough), Rep. Eric Stohl (R-Colebrook), and House Majority Leader Mary Jane Wallner (D-Concord).
SB 381 goes into effect on January 1, 2009. The Forest Society will be working with the New Hampshire Association of Conservation Commissions and the New Hampshire Municipal Association to educate towns on the new law, and help them prepare the required warrant articles for 2009 town meeting.