[Recommended by the Harrisville Conservation Commission; Recommended by the Selectboard, majority vote required.]
Mr. Wolhandler began by displaying a map of land in the town currently in conservation and explaining the concept behind, and origin of, the Land Use Change Tax (LUCT). Mr. Wolhandler stated that roughly 80% of the town’s lands are forested or in current use and that, when land is taken out of current use to be maintained as open farmland or woodlands to be put into commercial development, the state’s Land Use Change Tax is assessed, a portion of which goes to conserving valuable pieces of land in perpetuity. The funds raised from this tax can then go toward supporting other conservation organizations. He pointed out properties on the map that the HCC has previously helped to conserve, and followed with a map of the Natural Resources Inventory (NRI), which includes important watersheds and aquifers the HCC aims to safeguard.
In reviewing the current state of the two existing conservation funds, dedicated to land conservation or conservation easements, Mr. Wolhandler stated that the total amount available from both is $79,448.00. Of this total, $19,414.00 is in the Land Conservation Capital Reserve Fund, the subject of the proposed Warrant Article under discussion. At this time, Mr. Wolhandler added, the Conservation Fund is $60,000. He also noted that both funds are restricted to land purchase or easement acquisition, and that the key question under discussion is whether the town wants to retain $79,500 for land acquisition or $60,000. There is no provision in either fund for environmental remediation.
Background on the LCCRF
Mr. Wolhandler noted that the LCCRF began in 2009 with a $15,000 contribution from the town and for 4 subsequent years, $1000 was added. Since that time, the fund has not been changed or used. These funds were declared only available by vote at Town Meeting and, again, restricted to land purchase or easement acquisition, with supporters of it arguing that fund availability would be voted on by the whole town and considered through the eyes of the town’s Master Plan. Mr. Wolhandler read the original Warrant Article as follows: To see if the town will vote to set up a non-lapsing Land Conservation Capital Reserve Fund. Such funds can be used to pay for landowners’ expenses when they place their land in conservation, to purchase development rights or, as matching funds for state, federal and other grants available for land purchase or conservation.
Other conservation funds available, according to Mr. Wolhandler, derive from contributions from the LUCT, an amount which has varied over the years and on the lower end at the time the LCCCRF was being considered. Mr. Wolhandler cited amounts contributed from the LUCT at different times and the reasons they varied, at times based on accounting errors, when 30% of the tax generated was not transferred, or due to consolidation with other funds. He noted that contributions varied from about $3000-$10,000. Expenses were also mentioned (e.g., for the Geddes property or for easements), with Mr. Wolhandler stating that they have been modest. In 2005, the Town decided to put 100% of LUCT funds into the Conservation Fund, again, as amended at 2008 Town Meeting, solely for the purpose of expenses related to land purchase or easement acquisition. Mr. Wolhandler noted that the state allows LUCT funds to be used for any purpose identified as a Conservation Commission allowed action.
Question under discussion
Returning to the question of whether to return the $19,414 in the LCCRF to the Town, while retaining $60,000, Mr. Wolhandler mentioned the research conducted by Planning Board Co-Chair Ned Hulbert on what other towns have done to fund conservation efforts, research which showed a varied approach. According to Sherry Sims, Mr. Hulbert’s personal position was for the HCC to retain the funds but that he held no position as to whether the Planning Board should take a position to either support or oppose the HCC’s proposed Warrant Article.
The HCC’s reasons for proposing the Warrant Article
In considering how much money was a reasonable amount to retain, HCC members considered the following: that it had never spent more than $10,000 in one year; that the funds keep growing and growing at a rate in line with expenses over the past 5 years; the larger Conservation Fund is more readily accessible and that the need for these funds come in late summer and fall when Town Meeting would prevent meeting grant application deadlines; in the future the HCC may ask the town to allow unrestricted use or semi-restricted use of funds to address environmental threats or implement remediation measures; and the Select Board’s access to additional funds in the event of an environmental emergency or pressing conservation opportunity; and the HCC believes it has sufficient funds for its foreseeable needs.
Mr. Wolhandler then opened up the discussion to all attendees, asking those supporting the HCC’s retention of the $19,414 from the LCCRF to speak first. But first, Chick Colony asked if it’s still the case that 100% of LUCT funds are contributed to the Conservation Fund and Mr. Wolhandler confirmed it is. Secondly, Andrew Maneval corrected a point made by Mr. Hulbert in his communication with all attendees prior to the meeting, relating to the reasons leading up to the meeting. Mr. Maneval noted that, in the Select Board’s sending its letter to Planning Board members on the stance the PB took on the proposed closing of the LCCRF, it was the Select Board’s position that it was in the HCC’s jurisdiction, and that the HCC was in the best position, to determine what to do with the funds, not the Select Board or the Planning Board. This, he added, had nothing to do with whether individuals chose to speak either for or against the article at Town Meeting but solely whether a Board itself took a position which the SB felt was more appropriately judged by the HCC. Mr. Maneval further stated that, this year, the Select Board didn’t consider the question of the Warrant Article but, because the SB is required to take a position on warrant articles with financial implications, once it learned of the HCC’s proposal, the SB recommended it.
Mr. Wolhandler pointed out the reminder by Jay Jacobs at a previous HCC meeting that the HCC wasn’t deciding the issue but, instead, proposing the issue to the town for decision.
Sherry Sims spoke to emphasize the Planning Board’s long range view and how that perspective is what led to its position to oppose the HCC’s article. The PB views the LCCRF as a forward-thinking fund and in accord the Master Plan and, as such, the PB desires to see funds earmarked for land conservation increased. Ms. Sims added that she believes the funds also are integral to the HCC’s goal of water and lake protection for recreation, beauty, tax impact and related matters. She added that it was the idea of preservation the importance of conservation and not the amount of money itself that factored into the PB’s opinion.
Mr. Wolhandler subsequently asked Ms. Sims if it was her position that keeping the funds in the LCCRF, a town fund more than an HCC fund, was the best decision and increasing that fund, theoretically with the addition of LUCT funds. Ms. Sims replied that she didn’t believe $20,000 was enough and also that she supported the need to access the funds via Town Meeting given the transparency associated with this process. Craig Thompson stated he didn’t see a problem with having too much money dedicated to the matter and Ryan Stone asked why there needed to be two separate funds and recommended combining them. While Mr. Stone agreed the current dollar amount isn’t enough, he did recommend the idea of a cap, possibly $100,000.
Wanting to provide some history to the issue, Mr. Colony noted that in 2008 Marlborough ignited area towns by passing a $1 million bond issue for conservation purposes and that it was a political statement by the Town of Harrisville to establish the LCCRF and the initial $15,000 was just to get it going, with the idea of annual contributions desired thereafter. Mr. Colony believes that, similarly, to close the fund would also be a political statement, this time against conservation. Though he didn’t suggest a specific amount to retain, Mr. Colony did note that such funds are helpful for project partnerships with other organizations and towns, and noted that Harrisville would continue to receive money through the LUCT funds and, for any major project, through a request to the town. He also expressed his personal opinion that to close the fund would be a step backward.
Andrea Polizos suggested the HCC contact other local conservation commissions to find out how much they’ve spent in recent years and what their conservation projects have entailed. Craig Thompson subsequently suggested easing the restrictions on the funds in order to be able to use them for other commission projects. Mr. Wolhandler noted that the idea has been raised, for example, for the goal of combating knotweed. Mr. Maneval asked Mr. Colony if, as Moderator, he believes it’s possible for an amendment to the Warrant Article to be proposed at town meeting to ease restrictions on the money in either or both conservation funds of if that exceeds the authority at town meeting. It was confirmed that it was too late to bring forth a new Warrant Article or to amend one related to a Capital Reserve Fund. Mr. Wolhandler suggested the additional time required could allow for further exploration and discussion of the issues and projected needs for such funds. Mr. Colony added that another factor to consider was the DRA’s potential disapproval of the movement of restricted funds to funds for general use.
In further discussion on other uses for HCC funds, including eradication of land or aquatic invasives or conservation initiatives, Craig Thompson suggested the HCC hold a Community Conversation to present options and gain input from residents but, before then, to withdraw the Warrant Article for the upcoming Town Meeting until the HCC gets more input.
Mr. Thompson then asked Winston Sims why he voted against the HCC’s decision to reintroduce the Warrant Article. Mr. Sims cited the language of the 2008 article establishing the fund as well as the reasoning behind it, including that the fund was established “to enable the town to purchase easement rights along with matching funds from other organizations to preserve our undeveloped land which is used for agriculture, forestry, wildlife, habitat, watershed and wetland protection. Any land to be purchased would be decided by the whole town and looked at through the eyes of our Master Plan.” Mr. Sims opposes abolishing the LCCRF because of the values and mission set forth in the 2008 article and because he believes the discussion leading up to the warrant article proposal lacked a discussion of these values. Mr. Sims added he doesn’t believe the proposal strengthens conservation or how it emerged from conservation or how it relates to the 2008 warrant article. He also cited the town’s efforts, subsequent to 2008 to either enlarge the fund or to vote down any attempts to reduce the money contributed to it. For Mr. Sims, this highlights the town’s deep beliefs in conservation values, objectives and purposes and that it has done everything it can to see that they continue.
Mr. Wolhandler responded that fellow commission members considered these issues from the perspective of the town, not from the perspective of the funds. The group felt that there was a portion of the funds that the town should retain for an emergency conservation reserve fund, and they estimated $50,000 would be a reasonable amount with the balance used for other conservation work, opportunities for which have come along at such a pace and size that have been manageable with existing funds. Given that the HCC wasn’t using the other funds, and a proposed need of a large sum hadn’t been presented, commission members wondered if the town at large could benefit from their return. Mr. Wolhandler added that no one, until this conversation, had given the commission good reason for the LCCRF funds to be retained. That said, Mr. Wolhandler and Les LaMois both stated that neither had a personal stake or preference in the decision but that, after a year of considering how much the funds were needed and, given the Select Board’s request in 2017 to have the funds returned to the town’s General Fund, the commission voted to reintroduce the question to the town. Mr. LaMois added he didn’t believe the HCC needs the extra $20,000 but that the HCC would be glad to keep it. Andrea Polizos stated she had been hesitant to vote the way she did, had hoped for another month of research before making a decision on it, and felt time pressure on the vote.
Subsequently, Doug Gline, former HCC member, spoke to suggest that, if approved for transfer from the LCCRF to the town’s General Fund, the money go toward the street light project, specifically to fund the installation of historic replica fixtures. It is Mr. Gline’s hope that the money be used, if not for land conservation, then for cultural conservation.
Courtney Cox spoke in favor of the idea of a Community Conversation on the subject as well as to the preservation of the LCCRF, at least for another year. Pete Thayer stated he agreed with Ryan Stone’s suggestion to combine the two funds into one and to establish a cap. The group restated that this would require a separate Warrant Article in 2019.
Winston Sims, referring to Mr. Wolhandler’s statement that ideas for use of the funds had not been raised until this meeting, commented that he had raised on three occasions during the year, in March, June and August meetings, that consideration was being given to easements or land acquisition but that such processes can involve lengthy stretches of time and several generations of families and can be very confidential in nature. For this reason, Mr. Sims stated, he did not approach his commission with any specific requests except to allude to the fact that discussions were under way. Mr. LaMois and Mr. Wolhandler confirmed that this was why they stated that no specific requests had been made for the need for the funds.
Mr. Wolhandler then displayed the conservation land map and asked Mr. Sims if the land his confidential discussions involve rests in critical conservation dense locations as identified in the map. Mr. Sims responded that he couldn’t confirm this based on the map’s categories but that, unquestionably, the lands in question had high conservation value. Mr. Wolhandler then added that he was under the assumption the potential financial needs that would arise from Mr. Sims’s discussions would involve transactional support costs in the $5-10,000 range and wondered if Mr. Sim’s eventual proposals would require much greater sums. Mr. Sims responded it was too early to say.
Andrew Maneval thanked Mr. Wolhandler for all his work and for his clarification that the LCCRF monies were restricted, which many people had not realized to date. He asked the group to keep in mind that the three funds, the Conservation Fund, the Land Conservation Capital Reserve Fund, and the General Fund, are all funds that the town owns and that the town benefits from, and that the question is how the town can best benefit from all the funds given the town’s objectives. Mr. Maneval subsequently added that roughly one quarter or 25% of the land in town, as depicted in the Natural Resources Inventory, is already in conservation and that anyone who wants to donate property, or an easement on property, to the town can do so and that the question is what the town wants to do on the issue of conservation. In the case of the acquisition of a significant amount of property, the matter would go to town meeting, as would the spending of the $19,000 in the LCCRF.
Mr. Maneval then stated that, rather than being taken away from the town, the act of moving the restricted LCCRF funds, funds that can only be accessed by a one day a year vote, to the Town’s General Fund would allow greater access by the town to this money for the town’s use. While in its current location, it’s more oriented to conservation issues, it’s a question of transparency and decision making. The more restrictions that are on the town’s ability to decide how its money is spent, especially if the money is tied up doing nothing over a long period of time, the more limited the town is in its right of self-determination about how to spend it. He explained that this was the primary reason the Select Board had proposed the article at the 2017 meeting, because it wanted to give more options, not less, to the town.
Returning to his reasons for opposing his commission’s vote, Mr. Sims recited estimates for combating aquatic invasive species in various bodies of water and that it’s past time for the HCC to discuss approaches to these risks, which Mr. Sims stated are tied to property values and could jeopardize property values in the order of 10-20%, thereby affecting the taxes of both lakeside and non-lakeside property owners. Mr. Sims reiterated his belief that the HCC’s decision process was foreshortened.
Seeking to address Mr. Sims’s comments, Mr. Wolhandler requested that Mr. Sims share his information and statistics on milfoil on other invasives. He added that the HCC’s goal is to spot an infestation at the earliest possible time, when it’s new found, and not to attempt to retain funds for to combat a full-blown infestation, which is not realistic. Returning to the issue of acquiring conservation land, Mr. Wolhandler noted that the HCC itself cannot own land; only the town can. Similarly, in the event of a milfoil invasion, the town can address raising the funds to address this.
Mr. Wolhandler then summarized the different schools of thought presented. He noted the HCC’s shorter-term focus on current and ongoing needs based on the past 20 years and not anticipating a great change. At the same time, he noted, the available funds have continued to grow. Other attendees presented a long-term view. Rather than taking a vote on who wins, Mr. Wolhandler recommended asking if there was a sector of town who desired the HCC to retain the funds and that the HCC doesn’t have a reason to fight that position. In the absence of that discussion, the HCC voted to put forth the Warrant Article.
The group then turned to ways the article might be amended on the floor, with Mr. Colony noting that you can’t have unlimited access to a Capital Reserve Fund. After subsequent discussion of possible amendments, Mr. Wolhandler proposed that, rather than withdraw its Warrant Article, the HCC propose that the town vote it down, based on more recent discussions and information put forth.
Asking if it’s possible to withdraw a Warrant Article, Mr. Colony noted that the best thing to do is to vote it down. When asked by Courtney Cox, how significant a political statement the decision is, Mr. Colony responded that it depends on who is asked. He added that the purpose of a Capital Reserve Fund is for people to pay today for something that is going to happen in the future. Andrew Maneval added that having people know what money is being set aside for, having an identifiable purpose or targeted expenditure, is an important element.
Mr. Thompson commented that the Warrant Article, which proposes moving the money to the General Fund, doesn’t solve that issue and instead suggested identifying a specific use for it. Mr. Maneval noted that it allows the money to be appropriated to the town budget, which is set out line by line, every nickel of which is accounted for. Mr. Maneval subsequently stated that in all the town’s other capital reserve funds, the town knows what the money being set aside is going to be used for, but that he doesn’t believe it is the case for the LCCRF, but that it is the case for the Land Conservation Fund which he very much has supported.
In final discussion, the group considered options for funding land acquisition and the best medium to do so. All cited the town’s ongoing support for conservation efforts, confident that the town can be approached with any future request for a significant project. Mr. Wolhandler stated that, in the next year, the HCC aims to get its membership up to its full complement of seven members whose skills and experience can bring needed insight. With that group, the HCC can bring forth projects it thinks need addressing, hold Community Conversations and work more fruitfully to carry out its mission. He thanked everyone for attending.
The next meeting of the HCC is scheduled for Wednesday, March 7, 2018 at 7:00 pm.
The meeting adjourned at 8:50 pm.