Amherst land sale falls through

AMHERST – The town’s plan to buy 227 acres of woodland and wetlands fell through this month after the owners backed out of a deal to sell the property as conservation land.

In March, town voters approved by a wide margin a $450,000 warrant article for the purchase, about half the $1 million price. The balance would have come from grants and other funding sources.

On Feb. 2, the landowners – the Hazen family, of Merrimack – signed a 90-day purchase option, according to a press release from the town, but declined to sign the purchase and sales agreement.

The town was working with the New Boston-

based Piscataquog Land Conservancy, which had applied for seven grants, said Chris Wells, the conservancy’s executive director, who said he was disappointed.

Wells said the $1 million price was based on a fresh appraisal done in January.

"I feel very strongly it was a good deal for both the town and the sellers," he said Friday.

Wells said that in his more than 20 years of working for conservation land organizations, he has never seen sellers back out of a deal "this order of magnitude."

Selectmen and the town Ways and Means Committee had unanimously supported the proposal. High among their reasons were protection of drinking water and preservation of wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation. There is said to be an enormous aquifer under the property that would allow Amherst to replace the water it gets from Pennichuck Corp. if need be. Pennichuck supplies water to the Amherst Village area.

In a press release, Town Administrator Jim O’Mara said the purchase would have been "a unique opportunity to preserve open space and further protect the groundwater in Amherst."

The property is bounded by Spring, County and Upton roads and is near the Pond Parish conservation area. According to the conservancy’s website, it "overlies one of Amherst’s highest yielding groundwater aquifers, and provides recharge to nearby residential drinking water wells."

One of the potential funding sources was the state Department of Environmental Services’ aquatic resource mitigation fund, Wells said.

All grant applications have been withdrawn.

Along with safeguarding drinking water, protecting the land would "protect surface water, wetlands and vernal pools which provide flood storage, aquatic habitat and ground water recharge," the website sayd. "The land also has potential for the development of recreational trails, including as a possible key component in a ‘safe routes to school’ pathway from Amherst Village to Souhegan High School."

The land is also considered to be part of an Amherst-Merrimack wildlife corridor.

On its website, the conservancy describes the hemlock, hardwood and pine forest as critical habitat for deer, bobcat, fishers, roughed grouse and purple finch. It’s immediately across Spring Road from the town’s Pond Parish conservation area and "is close to other town lands to the north and east that are part of a larger wildlife corridor extending two miles to the town of Merrimack’s Grater Woods conservation area."

The property is part of a 352-acre tract about 1 1/2 miles southeast of the Village; selectmen’s Chairman Dwight Brew said in February that it is being actively marketed.

The real estate agent for the sellers, Kristin Hayes Claire of Concord, did not return phone calls.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.