State cuts will affect local land projects
Effects of L-Chip fund reduction will reach far
By Jessica Arriens
Keene Sentinel Staff
Published: Monday, November 24, 2008
The announcement came Friday afternoon.
Three million dollars, allocated for dozens of projects around the state, was to be taken away.
The announcement came from Gov. John H. Lynch, and the $3 million from the state's Land and Community Investment Program, which gives grants to towns and organizations across New Hampshire for land conservation and historic preservation.
Lynch proposed – and the Legislature's joint fiscal committee approved – the cut to try to reduce New Hampshire's projected deficit.
The $3 million is just a tiny slice of the $150 million in cuts Lynch and lawmakers have made so far, but one that worries land conservation advocates nonetheless.
The decrease affects conservation dramatically, said David J. Savage, vice president of communications at the N.H. Forest Society.
The Land and Community Heritage Investment Program "leverages so much other money," because the program requires grantees to obtain matching funds and signifies that a project has statewide importance, Savage said.
But beyond just affecting the projects that were promised grants, the cut may forecast a larger cutback in conservation.
Commission members and conservation experts say land conservation is integral to maintaining New Hampshire's beloved rural nature.
But could the current dismal economy and higher taxes push conservation funding aside?
The Land and Community Heritage Investment Program was budgeted for $12 million over two years, Savage said, $6 million this year and $6 million the next.
The money for this year has already been committed to more than 30 projects, he said.
For those projects that have not started or spent their grant money, the funds sit in a state account – where the $3 million cut will be coming from.
All of the projects that won grants this year will still receive the money. But all grant applications for next year have been suspended, and Savage said the plan is to use next year's funding to pay for this year's projects.
"Conservation commissions are always aware when money is tight," said Carol K. Andrews, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Conservation Commissions, a nonprofit group that provides support to the commissions.
Conservation commissions, which may be created by a town, are the only municipal boards with the specific responsibility of protecting a town's natural resources.
Commissions can advise town boards on conservation matters, conduct research like a natural resource inventory, or work to purchase land outright.
The money to support all these projects comes from a variety of sources.
Perhaps the most common is a portion of the state's land use change tax, which is 10 percent of a land's true value, due when a property assessed at current use is changed to another use.
Many conservation commissions get a percentage of that tax to help fund their work.
Conservation commissions can also create capital reserve or trust funds, filled with taxpayer money that must be allocated and approved at town meeting.
Having money set aside is a good idea, Andrews said, since it allows towns to be proactive in conservation efforts.
And that's exactly the argument that Paul M. Kotila, chairman of Fitzwilliam's conservation commission, will use when his group asks for $15,000 at next year's town meeting.
The money is part of a continued effort to save funds for future conservation opportunities in the town, Kotila said. It was a warrant article at last year's town meeting as well, approved over the qualms of the town's budget committee and selectmen.
"In our case, we've been lucky that there is general community support for this kind of thing," Kotila said.
In Fitzwilliam, having a capital reserve fund ready allowed the town commission jump on the opportunity to help with a conservation easement, Kotila said.
Conservation easements, another common responsibility of conservation commissions, are legal agreements between property owners and qualified conservation organizations, like town commissions or the Monadnock Conservancy, a community land trust based in Keene.
The agreements restrict development and use of the land, but landowners retain ownership and the right to sell the property.
Kotila said he suspects conservation commission members around the region are worried about the economy affecting their funding.
In Fitzwilliam's $1.7 million budget, $15,000 is really just a tiny piece, "but some people might look at that and think, that's not money that needs to be spent," Kotila said.
Peterborough's conservation commission is also asking for the same funding – $25,000 – it did last year, after word spread that the town was keeping its budget flat, said commission co-chair Frances Von Mertens.
Between a capital reserve fund and revenue from the land use change tax, Peterborough's conservation commission has around $500,000 saved, Von Mertens said, so the commission won't suffer by keeping its budget flat.
But conservation commissions always have to be frugal, whatever the economic climate may be, Von Mertens said, since there's never going to be a lot of conservation money.
And just like in Fitzwilliam, Von Mertens said the conservation commission has been well supported at town meeting.
Poor economy is sapping conservation funding
Despite these success stories, conservation funding in New Hampshire as a whole is dropping, according to Dijit Taylor, director of the nonprofit Center for Land Conservation Assistance.
The center keeps an eye on funding throughout the state, but hasn't received the numbers for this year.
"So we really don't know what's going to happen next," she said.
It's not quite as easy to simply take back money – as was done with the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program – from town conservation commissions, Taylor said, because conservation funds cannot be taken out without approval at town meeting.
But commissions are certainly uneasy about the downturn in the economy, Taylor said.
"Selectmen are looking at their budgets even more carefully than they ever have before."
And in the case of Jaffrey's conservation commission, that led to a decrease in funds.
Until last March, the commission was supported by 50 percent of the revenues from the land use change tax, as well as 50 percent from timber tax. But last year, as Jaffrey's tax bills rose due to a new sewer plant in town, the selectmen decided to divert the timber tax revenues into the general fund.
The revenues were "a magnet that proved irresistible," said John O. Field, chairman of Jaffrey's conservation commission.
The two boards negotiated an agreement on the change, in which the diverted timber tax funds are supposed go back to the conservation commission in 10 years.
In 2007, the commission also spent about $308,000 purchasing more than 60 acres behind Cheshire Pond and helping with a 56-acre conservation easement.
After these two purchases "the conservation fund is now substantially diminished," Field said.
And because of the loss in timber tax revenues, he said, the town is not going to be able to replenish it very quickly.
To get any significant funding is a very chancy proposition, Field said, since this is not the economic climate in which conservation commissions can give good reason for dipping into the town treasury.
"I don't see us in a position to be able to do anything very heroic or very substantial in terms of land acquisition for the reasonable future," he said.
"We'll simply have to function at a much lower level of effort."
The role of land conservation in the state
Ask anyone who works in land conservation – be they a commission member or nonprofit director – why conservation is important even in today's tightening economy, and three words come up: "maintaining rural character."
"Find me a master plan that doesn't say that," said Von Mertens of the Peterborough Conservation Commission.
"How do you protect rural character without protecting land?" said Field.
But the benefits of conservation extend beyond aesthetics, according to Dee S. Robbins, a conservation associate at the Monadnock Conservancy.
Conservation affects public health, she said, by securing open space for recreation and exercise and reducing pollution.
Preserving wetlands also ensures safety during floods, Robbins said, and open space conservation can actually save money on taxes, because it doesn't increase municipal service costs.
There is a very strong land ethic in the Monadnock Region, said Eric Aldrich, communications and development specialist at the Harris Center for Conservation Education, a Keene-based land trust that also runs conservation programs at local schools.
Whether that ethic is enough to maintain conservation commission funding at town meeting next year remains to be seen.
But one thing's for sure.
"Once it's developed," Aldrich said, "you don't get it back."
Jessica Arriens can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1433, or email@example.com