All about ConComs

For the Ledger-Transcript
Monday, March 28, 2016 7:54PM

Most towns and cities in New Hampshire have Conservation Commissions, which are often referred to in the conservation world as ConComs. Like a Planning Board, a Zoning Board of Adjustment and a Board of Selectmen, a ConCom has specific purposes and responsibilities.  And like the board members of those other municipal boards, the members of ConComs are volunteers.

A town’s ConCom is the compiler and keeper of information regarding the town’s open space, water bodies, marshlands, swamps, wetlands, and other areas of ecological, natural, and aesthetic significance to the town.  If you hike, watch birds, or otherwise enjoy the natural areas of your town, your ConCom most likely knows those places.  The ConCom may have even acquired those lands you use, have a conservation easement on those areas, or have otherwise facilitated the protection of those lands.

ConComs have additional responsibilities, including making the initial review of certain N.H. Department of Environmental Services’ permit applications, including shoreland permits-by-notification.

Pursuant to statute, a ConCom has the authority to purchase interests in land.  Depending on the specific powers that the town has granted to the ConCom, it can also contribute towards a land trust’s protection of land.  This is a common scenario. A local land trust needs financial assistance to either purchase a property or a conservation easement on a property, or to help pay for the transactional costs necessarily involved with purchasing land or a conservation easement or receiving the same by gift.  These transactional costs might include baseline documentation, legal costs or surveying expenses. Often, a ConCom’s assistance can make or break a deal.

Generally, the funds available to a ConCom are in the town’s conservation fund, which is a municipal finance account that is usually created at the same time that the ConCom is established. The money in a conservation fund can come from public and private sources.  The most common source of funding for a conservation fund is the Land Use Change Tax. The LUCT is imposed on land that is taken out of “current use” taxation.  “Current use” is a New Hampshire tax status that encourages the preservation of open space and forested land by taxing the land at its lower undeveloped, or “current,” use rather than taxing the land based on its development potential.

When land is taken out of current use, usually by the commencement of development or construction activities, the LUCT is imposed. The LUCT is 10 percent of the property’s fair market, i.e., development, value.  By statute, a town may vote to have all or a percentage of the LUCT deposited into the conservation fund.  The majority of towns in the Monadnock region have voted to allocate some or all of the LUCT to conservation funds. It makes sense that tax revenue that is due because land is being developed goes toward protecting a town’s remaining natural areas.

Unless it is spending conservation fund money for one of its core purposes, such as inventorying wetlands, fighting the spread of invasive species, or preparing maps of conserved areas, a ConCom must hold a public hearing before spending conservation funds.  Depending on the type of transaction, such as buying land or contributing toward a land trust’s acquisition of land or a conservation easement, there are usually other types of municipal approvals required to complete the deal, such as the approval of the Board of Selectmen.

I encourage you to become familiar with your town’s natural areas that have benefited from the hard work of your town’s ConCom.  Those areas are most likely integral to the identity of the town.  New Hampshire’s ConComs are assisted by the N.H. Association of Conservation Commissions, which puts on a terrific annual meeting every autumn.  Next year’s meeting will be the 47th annual meeting.  Although they have been hard at work for a long time, the ConComs always need your input and support.

Jason Reimers is an attorney with BCM Environmental & Land Law, PLLC, in Concord, and a member of the Board of Directors of the New Hampshire Lakes Association.