Frye easement on the agenda

Article asks for $80K for conservation

WILTON — Multiple town boards have taken a stance on a petition article asking the town to contribute to an easement on land abutting the High Mowing School this year — both for and against. On Wednesday, proponents of the warrant article will hold a public meeting led by representatives from High Mowing School, the Wilton Conservation Commission and Ian McSweeney from the Russell Foundation. The informational session about the project is the last opportunity for voters to discuss the issue before it is on the floor at Town Meeting.

The petition article, which will be on the ballot during this year’s Town Meeting, asks voters to raise and appropriate up to the sum of $80,000 for the purpose of acquiring a partial interest in the conservation of 105 acres of Frye Farm land on top of Abbott Hill, across from the High Mowing School. Last year, the school entered a purchase agreement with the Frye family to purchase and conserve the land for use in expanding their forestry and agricultural programs. The agreement also states that High Mowing will also permanently conserve 54 acres of property already owned by the school. High Mowing will own the land, but the easements on both properties will be held by the Yggdrasil Land Foundation.

The school, with the assistance for the Russell Foundation, has been raising funds to pay for the agreement for the past year, in a combination of grant applications and private fundraising. Grants have been obtained from the Federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program grant funds and USDA and Natural Resources Conservation Services, and grant applications will continue in the spring to reach the last of the goal, according to McSweeney. The project is currently short $300,000 of its final goal.

The article has proved contentious among town boards. The Budget Committee attempted to reduce the requested amount to $1, which was ruled outside the committee’s power by the Department of Revenue Administration. The Select Board has also voted 2-1 to not recommend the article. The Budget Committee also voted not to recommend the article.

Don Davidson, the vice-chair of the Budget Committee, said that the committee ultimately voted not to recommend the article based on a number of concerns, including possible tax break implications and whether or not the town could recoup the cost financially.

Select Board Chair Dan Donovan said that he found it hard to justify supporting the article, since it would not contribute to the town’s gains in the matter.

“It impresses [Select Board member Bill Condra] and I that it’s not a wise expenditure of tax money.” said Donovan in a phone interview Monday. “We find it hard to justify, since the school, in its acquisition, intends to use agricultural purposes. It doesn’t make sense to pay funds to use it for the same purpose they’re going to use it for.”

Condra has also expressed concerns that the main benefactor of contributing to the purchase of the easement would be the private entity of the High Mowing School, not the town as a whole.

McSweeney argued most town expenditures go to a private entity for a good or a service, and that is the case in the easement as well — the town is not donating the funds, they are buying an interest in the easement, which comes with certain rights.

Donovan noted that the Conservation Commission had submitted budgets to the Select Board and Budget Committee and told both boards that they did not intend to submit requests for acquisitions this year. However, the Conservation Commission has expressed support for the petition article.

“We support it for a number of reasons, primarily having to do with the preservation of the viewshed, cultural ambiance, and preservation of open space and prime agricultural land,” said Joe Boyles of the Conservation Commission. “It’s a wonderful opportunity that would give the public guaranteed access.”

Boyles argued that if the town contributes to the purchase of the easement, they become an invested stakeholder, able to enjoy the benefits of the passive use of the land, as well as the right to ensure enforcement of the easement, without being held responsible for doing the enforcing, which can be legally expensive. He said he did not agree with the Budget Committee or the Select Board in their decisions not to recommend the article. Some grant requests related to the property were turned down, with one of the concerns being that the town had not showed an interest in supporting the endeavor. Two grants being pursued to fund the purchase, including Moose Plate and state LCHIP grants, look heavily at town involvement, said McSweeney, so town support will be integral to gaining those funds, which represent about half of the remaining cost to be raised. Without those funds, he said, it will be difficult to reach the final goal by the end of July, which is the intended goal.

“The probability of realizing the ability to conserve that land is higher if the town shows an interest,” said Boyles. “To have the land protected at a $80,000 maximum price is an amazing opportunity to protect a lot of land in perpetuity.”

Camilla Lockwood of Temple, who has been involved in multiple land conservation projects and is familiar with the Frye property, said she was shocked that the Select Board hadn’t reccommended the article, noting that the project had several aspects that made it valuable to conserve, particularly in its water resources.

“This seems like such a winning combination, and I was shocked that the Wilton Selectman [voted not to support the article.]”

Among the benefits, according to a press release issued by McSweeney, are the conservation of open, agricultural lands which the town has recognized as a high ranking contiguous parcel in the Town of Wilton Natural Resource Inventory, and is also a highly ranked N.H. Fish and Game wildlife habitat. It will also give the town access to passive recreation of the 160 acres of farm and forest land including an existing Corridor 13 snowmobile trail.

The informational meeting will be held tomorrow, March 5, at 7 p.m. at the Wilton Public and Gregg Free Library.

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