printer-friendly versionND voters support Birch Ridge conservation
BY BRENDAN BERUBE Staff Writer
NEW DURHAM — A burst of cheers and applause accompanied the announcement that an overwhelming majority of the voters present at New Durham’s annual Town Meeting on March 11 had thrown their support behind a resolution authorizing the selectmen to pursue the conservation of Birch Ridge.
Article 13 on the 2009 town Warrant asked voters to approve the language of a resolution authorizing the board of selectmen to vigorously pursue the permanent conservation of the 2,038-acre property overlooking the south shore of Merrymeeting Lake (for which Red Oak LLC submitted conceptual plans in late 2007 depicting a 220-unit subdivision consisting of 94 single-family homes and 63 duplexes); apply for, accept and expend any federal, state, or private grants that may become available in support of the conservation effort; negotiate the terms of purchase of a conservation easement and/or the fee interest over all or a portion of the property; cooperate with federal or state agencies and/ or private, non-profit conservation organizations; and submit a Warrant article to the 2010 Town Meeting asking voters to raise and appropriate an amount not to exceed $1 million toward the purchase of the property.
Selectman Ron Gehl explained that the board had proposed the resolution based on the “strong consensus” within the community that a large-scale subdivision on the Birch Ridge property would have a “huge impact” on residents’ tax bills.
Commenting that the resolution was intended as a means of maximizing the town’s chances of receiving “other people’s money” in the form of state and federal grants, Gehl pointed out that no appropriation was being requested this year, and that the selectmen had “no idea” yet what the purchase price might be.
Resident Bill McGrew compared the resolution to an offer to buy a new truck.
While he would pass on the truck at the present time due to the declining state of the economy, he said, if the salesman promised to return in a year’s time with a new proposal that would save him money in the long run and enable him to put state and federal money toward the purchase of the vehicle, “I’d rather hear the deal.”
Informing the audience that the Birch Ridge Conservation Project Group had already raised $630,000 to $640,000 in pledges from area residents, McGrew pointed out that if voters were to agree to a municipal bond next year, their property taxes would increase for a period of four to five years, then drop back down.
A large-scale development would have the opposite effect, he added, generating a continual increase in property taxes.
“I find this insulting,” police department executive assistant Katie Woods said, explaining that she took personal offense to the selectmen’s willingness to pursue a bond in support of the conservation effort when town departments have been asked to tighten their belts and go without pressing needs.
“How are we going to catch up from this year?” she asked. “Why aren’t we buying up every other parcel of land in town?”
Asked by resident Cathy Allyn to clarify whether the $1 million mentioned in the article was an estimate or a concrete figure, Gehl replied that the selectmen were trying to put a “ceiling” on any potential appropriation.
Explaining that as he understood it,Red Oak had paid $3.4 million for the property, put an additional $500,000 into survey work and conceptual designs, and were asking for $4 million in return, resident Ed Neister asked what agreements, if any, the selectmen had made with the developers.
Gehl replied that the board had made no agreements with Red Oak “on any level,” adding that no speculation on Red Oak’s asking price for the property “has any standing.”
Asked by resident Carol Bickford whether the town would own the property after putting up such a large sum of money toward the purchase price, Gehl explained that the town would be expected to own at least half of the property, with sustainable forestry a possibility for future revenue.
Commenting that he liked “to see woods when I look up on that ridge,” budget committee Vice Chair David Curry encouraged his fellow voters to support the proposal in light of the fact that “we’ve got a year.”
Longtime Merrymeeting Lake resident Bob Kroepel explained that as a member of the Merrymeeting Lake Association’s Taxpayers’ Committee in 1991, he had researched the assessed values of properties surrounding the lake, and found that at that time, they represented 29 percent of the total taxable property in New Durham, and 44 percent of the town’s total annual tax revenue.
With those properties now likely representing close to 50 percent of the town’s tax revenue, he said, the average taxpayer in New Durham would see a 20 percent increase in their property taxes if a widespread devaluation occurred along Merrymeeting Lake due to the loss of Birch Ridge.
“We need to divorce this from other issues,” he said, adding that the issue at stake was the “possible loss of a tremendous amount of revenue.”
Resident Donald Carlson asked whether it would be possible to remove the statement of support for a bond, and vote on the remainder of the resolution.
Calling the language supporting the bond the “most important aspect” of the resolution, Gehl replied that it would be the key element in trying to place the town in a favorable position when applying for grants.
Stating that he could not support passage of the article with that language in place, Carlson wondered aloud where the state, which is currently facing a multimillion dollar deficit, was going to come up with grant money.
Addressing McGrew’s earlier comments regarding the amount raised in pledges, Carlson advised the audience that, “pledges aren’t money in the bank.”
Resident Mike Davenport urged voters to support the resolution, commenting that, “if we don’t like the deal, we can vote ‘no’ next year.”
Asked by resident Carl Woods whether the board of selectmen could proceed with their pursuit of grant funding without the official support of the town, Gehl replied that a vote against the resolution “would diminish our position.”
“This is about putting lipstick on,” Selectman Dave Bickford added, explaining that the purpose of the resolution was to make the town look as attractive as possible in the eyes of grant-making agencies.
Stating that she felt the town “should be looking into this,” budget committee Chairwoman Cecile Chase assured the audience that her committee would “take a hard look” at whatever proposal the selectmen brought forward.
Neister proposed an amendment to the article adding new language clearly leaving the responsibility in the hands of the selectmen to bring forward a “favorable price” for the property, backed by a majority vote.
“When the board of selectmen acts, doesn’t it have to be by a majority vote?” resident Paddy McHale asked.
The selectmen agreed, commenting that the resolution, as written, bound them to bring forward a bond proposal “not to exceed” $1 million.
Gehl pointed out that any bond article brought forward next year would be subject to review by the budget committee.
Neister’s amendment failed.
Following a vote by secret paper ballot requested by petition, Article 13 passed with 116 residents in favor, and 34 opposed.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or email@example.com.
The complete story can be found in The Baysider’s March 19, 2009 issue at http://www.newhampshirelakesandmountains.com/pdf/BAY.2009.03.19.pdf.