Wilton Conservation Commission: Saving Frye farmland benefits everyone

WILTON –­ Town residents have much to gain through the preservation of 160 acres of farmland at the top of Abbott Hill, say the supporters of a plan to conserve the property.

The land –­ 105 acres of the Frye farm and 54 acres of High Mowing School farmland –­ will be available for the public to use for hiking, snowmobiling, fishing and other public uses, said Spencer Brookes, of the Wilton Conservation Commission.

At the March Town Meeting, voters will be asked to approve an $80,000 warrant article, which would be Wilton’s contribution to the easement plan.

Selectmen recently voted against recommending it, saying they don’t see the benefit to the town, and supporters are concerned that without that recommendation, the project could be in jeopardy.

The $80,000 would be the town’s contribution to a $1.6 million easement purchase, half of which is covered by the federal Farm and Ranch Land Conservation Fund.

High Mowing School, which is contributing 54 acres to the Frye acreage, will use the property for a farm and forest management education program.

The school and the nonprofit Russell Foundation, are holding a public meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 5, in the Wilton Public and Gregg Free Library to explain the plan.

Taxes are certainly an issue this year, with the town budget up by 9 percent, Brookes said, but the Conservation Commission voted to endorse the plan and feels “very strongly that the town should have the right to vote” on this.

The easement proposal is also endorsed by the Souhegan Valley Land Trust and the Souhegan River Local Advisory Committee.

Preserving the land, Brookes said, will mean the town would gain permanent use of the property for recreation, including hiking, snowmobiling, fishing, as well as protection of several town wells.

The property includes 800 feet of frontage on the Souhegan River, an important fish spawning and fishing area, he said, and the easement will also protect views of the surrounding countryside from the highest point in town and provide access to a state snowmobile trail that goes from the Massachusetts border to the White Mountains.

Links to State Snowmobile Trail No. 13 and a right-of-way would be protected, and the Winter Wanderers would have a right to relocate and maintain their trails.

If the easement is approved, there would be designated parking at the Frye Field Viewpoint on Isaac Frye Highway. There is also parking at High Mowing School for those walking the property and parking will be allowed along the town road, which runs through the property.

Also, fishing would be allowed along the Souhegan River with public access provided.

The private school will benefit, Brookes said, but people should keep in mind that the high school, and Pine Hill Elementary School, are assets to Wilton, “bringing people here who stay a lifetime” and who help make this a community known for the arts.

“The town will acquire rights to permanent public recreation land, for hiking and access to the river,” said Ian McSweeney, executive director of the nonprofit Russell Foundation, which is facilitating the easement.

“There is no reason to think the school is the main beneficiary,” he said.

McSweeney said passage of the warrant article would show that the town wants to buy into the project and help secure the grant program and leverage other grants the Russell Foundation will apply for.

Without town money, the entire project could be in jeopardy, he said.

“The Fryes have been patient,” McSweeney said, “but there is a contract with an agreed-to closing date of July 2014. They are definitely interested in selling their land to one party or another.”

Gary Frye is part of the sixth generation to farm the land at the top of Abbott Hill, and he is optimistic the easement will go through one way or another.

“I would rather see the land kept open than have it filled with houses,” he said in a phone interview last week. “I think it would be better for the town and for the state and for future generations.”

McSweeney and representatives from the Wilton Conservation Commission and High Mowing are expected to be at the information session.

The Russell Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving New Hampshire farmland. It doesn’t own any land or hold any easements, McSweeny said, but only facilitates easement arrangements like this one.

According to McSweeney, for the sale of conservation easement on 105 acres Frye will receive $1,100,000. For the sale of the easement on its 54 acres, High Mowing will receive $405,000.

The buyers of the conservation easement are the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Yggdrasil Land Foundation, a nonprofit farmland conservation organization.

It’s important to note, McSweeney said in an email, that High Mowing has committed the $405,000 toward the Frye purchase costs, and the school will not acquire any interest in the conservation easement.

The balance of the $1.6 million is for projects costs, including surveys, environmental testing and an appraisal – costs that are being covered by High Mowing, the Russell Foundation and Yggdrasil.

Over the past seven years in Hillsborough County, McSweeney said, the Russell Foundation has been involved in 71 different projects, helping preserve 7,497 acres of farmland.

The Wilton Town Meeting is at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 13 in Florence Rideout Elementary School.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at kcleveland@cabinet.com or 673-3100, ext. 304. Correspondent Jessie Salisbury contributed to this report.