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Should we care about preserving common land in Wilton?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

At the tail end of the Great Depression, my grandparents inherited a million dollars. It was a confounding amount of money for newly marrieds in small town New Hampshire.

Somehow, they avoided lottery syndrome. They were conservative, and it was likely they wanted to preserve what they clung to; their reputation and lifelong ties to the people in their town. Quietly though, over a number of years, they did do something big with their fortune. They bought land.

Eventually, they had a house on the lake that bordered the pasture where our father worked a small farm. They bought other parcels in the county and one on the coast of Maine, but those woods and fields in Meredith were our world. From when we were small, my brother and I thrilled to the fact of that open empty place where we belonged, to which we could always return – and that would always remain pretty much the same.

Years later, when it was all lost, our pain was measured by how little we spoke of it. A family rift, a swindler from Texas – just like that it had all become someone else’s land. The lake house was torn down to make way for real architecture and our father’s farm became a sanitized retreat for moneyed out-of-staters. All that’s left: A rocky speck of an island in Lake Winnipesaukee too small to build on – forgotten in the hasty sale of the land on Moultonborough Neck. From the tiny island, we have a good view of the dozen or so new houses and docks that now cover the stretch of beach shaded by tall timber that we remember. But we pack our canoe and paddle out there anyway, to camp under the lone pine tree, pick blueberries and swim. It’s a fraction, a bitter crumb, but it’s ours.

Nowadays, when I walk down Wilton’s Maple Street, past the community garden, up to the top of Carnival Hill and I survey our pretty town, I am doing so on land in which I have a stake. The fact that the hill is town land and therefore, partly mine, feels as if some old-fashioned ideal is still alive, that all is not entirely lost. This town belongs to me, and I belong to this town.

But it’s not an old idea, this push to preserve special land for public use and enjoyment. It’s an up and coming one. Called “smart growth” by Americans or “urban intensification” by Europeans, it favors long-term sustainability of local resources and the health and well-being of people over a short-term focus; open land versus housing development sprawl. It means that if you live in town, whether or not you can afford the $5,000 or $6,000 per year it costs to own property here, there is a beautiful place set aside for you where you can go fishing, have a picnic, bird watch, take a long hike, go on a snowmobile ride, plant a tree, go mushrooming, teach a child to swim, land your hot air balloon, ride your horse, remember a loved one, get married, or just sit in silence and be.

At town meeting on March 13, we residents have the chance to acquire for ourselves a beautiful, unique space at the top of Abbott Hill – the highest spot in town; a place of forests and hay fields with a river running through it. No, we haven’t inherited a million dollars, but we did acquire a single-minded group of people with the desire to pull together for us an affordable alternative to more houses and fewer places to call our own. We should accept this gift.

Vote yes on Wilton’s Warrant Article 13.

Susan Lunt Childress lives in Wilton and is a former reporter for The Cabinet.

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