Selectman back conservation funding

AMHERST – In March, voters will be asked if the conservation commission should have all current use penalty funds so it can act quickly when desirable land is available to buy.

The commission now gets 50 percent of the money accumulated from the Land Use Change Tax, a penalty landowners pay when they develop property in current use, meaning property that’s taxed at a lower level because it was undeveloped and used for agriculture or forestry, for example.

Selectmen are finalizing the town budget and warrant articles for the Jan. 8 public hearing, and at a recent meeting, Rob Clemens and Jared Hardner gave a slide presentation on the commission’s work, showing how and why it prioritizes land for purchase.

The land fund now has about $570,000, and most properties they would want to buy would cost at least $1 million, Hardner said.

“When the time comes for the right deal … we need to raise more money” quickly.

There are huge tracts of undeveloped land in the middle of conservation areas, worth between $400,000 and $2 million, and commission members have been talking to the owners for years, he said.

A couple years ago, residents voted down a similar LUCT warrant article, and he said the commission will do a better job this year explaining the fund’s use to residents.

The LUCT funds vary from year to year. Last year, it was $130,000, and 50 percent went to the commission’s land fund.

To make a purchase without waiting for a warrant article to pass, the commission should probably have between $1.5 million and $2 million, the commissioners said.

“We need to be cautious about what we acquire,” Hardner said, and at the same time they need to be ready to act when a desirable piece of land is available.

Those desirable properties are in three areas: The first is the north section of town, extending from Joe English and the Air Force tracking station down to Mack Hill and Austin Road. The second is the east section, near Pond Parish and Grater Woods and into Merrimack.

The third area is the 101A corridor, because of its importance to water resources.

“Ironically, the most developed commercial area actually has the highest potential for conserving municipal water resources for the future,” he said.

Selectman Mike Akillian called it a “fabulous presentation” and talked about the commission working with selectmen and the planning board on natural resource planning, including the chapter of the town master plan, which is due for revision in 2022.

“I feel very confident you folks are looking out for our land use extremely well. I am much more inclined to support ongoing funding,” he said, and the board wants to know more about the impact of conservation on economic development and the dollar requirements for land acquisition.

Both the selectmen and the Ways and Means Committee voted to unanimously support the article.

Selectman Tom Grella told commissioners he has changed his mind about the LUCT funds.

“I agree with everything you’re trying to do. … I changed my philosophy. This should happen,” he said.

There will be two conservation articles on the warrant. The other one, for $43,500, would authorize the commission to spend LUCT money for three purposes: To fund a trail grant match, to update the town forest management plan and to control invasive species. Selectmen voted 5-0 to support the article, but Ways and Means had not voted by press time.

Beyond controlling invasive plants on the 13 percent of Amherst that’s in conservation, Hardner said, the commission eventually wants to extend its reach by helping landowners deal with them.

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

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