LCHIP on the cutting block? Churches, farm among the local projects backed
By Jessica Arriens, Keene Sentinel Staff
Land that grows the best sweet corn around. A mid-19th century brick storehouse. Steeple-adorned meetinghouses, which have marked the march of years with regular town business and celebrations
All are recent awardees of New Hampshire’s Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, which gives matching grants to towns and organizations across the state for natural and cultural preservation.
LCHIP grants have been crucial for some major projects in the Monadnock Region, such as those two meetinghouses: iconic white buildings in Acworth and Langdon, both sites of multi-year renovation campaigns.
In nearly every grant cycle, the Monadnock Conservancy has a project “that could be made or broken by an LCHIP (grant),” said Executive Director Ryan M. Owens.
The grants are enticing to towns and organizations, a way to boost their coffers for major preservation projects many would otherwise be unable to afford. In recent years, however, the program’s funding has been enticing to state lawmakers, too, as a source of revenue to help ease New Hampshire’s fiscal woes.
In times of economic hardship, luxuries are often the first to go, Owens said. And conservation?
“I think it’s considered more a luxury than a necessity.”
Last week, the House Finance Committee approved a spending reduction bill that included a $1 million LCHIP cut. The full House voted to table the bill on Wednesday, after the proposed cuts — which also included downshifting more costs onto state retirement system contributors — faced strong resistance from lawmakers in both the House and Senate.
But the danger to LCHIP’s finances likely has not abated, not with a looming state budget deficit projected at $140 million.
State conservation groups decried last week’s budget proposal. Jennifer Goodman, executive director of the N.H. Preservation Alliance, said the recommendation “further hampers a popular and strategic matching grants program designed to protect the characters of our communities and contribute to our economic vitality.”
The proposal was deemed especially harsh since the Legislature already cut $3 million from LCHIP’s funding in 2008, forcing the program to suspend grant applications the ensuing year.
The $1 million proposed cut would leave LCHIP with a budget of $721,000 in the 2011 fiscal year, set to begin July 1, according to the N.H. Forest Society.
LCHIP’s funding stream comes from a surcharge on four types of documents recorded at county registrar offices.
“We recognize the extremely difficult financial situation facing the state, but the Legislature shouldn’t deceive the people of New Hampshire, who’ve been told that when they pay this fee, they are supporting conservation and historic preservation, not general state government,” said society President Jane Difley.
The funding was designed so LCHIP wouldn’t compete with other state programs, Owens said.
It’s “unfortunate and ironic” that even with this safeguard, the program is still being raided, he said.
The conservancy was awarded $88,680 in LCHIP’s most recent grant round, to be used for a conservation easement on Tippin’ Rock Farm in Swanzey.
The property “really epitomizes what the town of Swanzey has come to call their rural character,” Owens said.
The land grows succulent sweet corn, borders important water sources and features great hiking trails, he said. The farm’s namesake comes from a 40-ton boulder atop of a hill, the stone positioned in such a way that hikers can make it wobble.
In Hancock, a $7,989 LCHIP grant will allow the historical society to make much-needed renovations to its museum.
“We are eternally grateful that LCHIP decided to give us the grant money,” said Kenneth D. Chester, historical society president.
“Lord knows how long it would take us to get $16,000, $17,000 from just our membership.”
After the society raises matching funds, a requirement of all LCHIP grants, it will use the money to mitigate water damage to the museum, damage so bad mold has grown on some of the museum’s artifacts — historic papers, old photographs, the legs of a piano.
The renovation work is necessary, so it would have happened at some point, LCHIP grant or not, Chester said. But relying on different grants or leaning solely on historical society members would have taken much longer, he said.
That may be the path Acworth’s conservation commission has to take, in its effort to conserve 83 acres of land near Crescent Lake and the Gove Town Forest. The commission did not secure a large LCHIP grant members were hoping would pay for part of the easement costs, which total $138,500.
At Acworth’s town meeting, voters approved raising $111,851 through taxes to pay for the easement, with the rest coming from grants and private donations.
The status of the land buy is in limbo, however, due to a state law banning towns from raising their budget more than 10 percent over the budget committee’s recommendation at town meeting. The conservation article pushes Acworth’s budget over that 10 percent mark.
“At this point, we’re just waiting to hear from a combination of the board of selectmen and the department of revenue administration,” said commission Chairwoman Susan Paton.
Besides being a beautiful recreation area, the property is part of the Crescent Lake and Cold River watersheds, “extremely important” areas of land, Paton said.
But could the still-fragile economy affect future fundraising, the support for conservation spending in town?
“All I can say is (Acworth residents) voted positively” at town meeting, Paton said. “We’re pleased with the vote.”
In Hancock, the upcoming museum renovations are the first stage in a larger project to update the historic building, one that could cost upward of $100,000, Chester said.
Knowing future LCHIP funds might dry up doesn’t necessarily make him nervous, he said.
“I guess we have to take what comes in the future as just that. You really don’t know what’s going to happen.”