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Grantham: Wetlands Protection Loses in a Landslide

Peter Hope studies the Grantham Town Report for the agenda of yesterday’s Town Meeting. (Valley News - Libby March)

Peter Hope studies the Grantham Town Report for the agenda of yesterday’s Town Meeting. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

Opponents of “prime wetlands” designation emerged victorious from last night’s Town Meeting, as voters overwhelmingly turned down an article meant to increase protection on Stocker Pond and seven other wetlands.

Opponents said the special designation would have imposed undue restrictions and negatively affected property values. Preliminary results last night showed residents voted against the designations, 357-100, in Australian ballot voting.

Meanwhile, the Conservation Commission, which had proposed the wetlands protections, suffered another blow later in the evening when voters turned down an article that would have appropriated $50,000 to add to the land preservation capital reserve fund.

That article failed, 91-76, in a hand count, and followed a similar failed attempt last year to draw $60,000 from the town’s general surplus to add to that reserve.

“They don’t understand the implications of the no vote on our funds,” said Dick Hocker, the commission chairman, suggesting that if the commission can’t swiftly purchase properties and the town is built up, it will quickly “spiral into a very expensive proposition.”

“These folks are reacting from an emotional standpoint,” he said.

“Right now there’s a great deal of animosity toward the Conservation Commission because of our proposal for the wetlands issues.”

The $50,000 appropriation was the only article that didn’t pass last night, as voters approved a budget and warrant articles totaling nearly $3.1 million, up 8 percent over the one approved last year largely because of health insurance and retirement costs.

Residents also debated the issue earlier in the day, when opponents scored a symbolic victory in a petitioned article that appeared on the warrant as a nonbinding referendum. Following nearly an hour of discussion, 130 voters indicated they were against the prime wetlands designation, versus 70 in favor.

Stocker Pond resident Mauri Schwartz, who petitioned the referendum article on behalf of a group that she said includes 200 people, said after that meeting that she was “very pleased” with the outcome last night. During discussion, she reiterated fears that a prime wetlands designation would decrease property values, therefore increasing taxes, and suggested the decisions about which wetlands to designate as prime were flawed.

Allen Wilson, a land surveyor, was one of several other people who spoke against the prime wetlands designation, suggesting that a long list of local, state and federal regulations were sufficient in protecting wetlands.

“Individual rights are also very important, so we should keep it at a local level,” he said.

But representatives from the Conservation Commission disputed those positions, contending that the process would not impose restrictions but rather force the state to hold a public hearing before variances on normal wetlands restrictions could be approved.

Despite recommending the prime wetlands designation, the commission disputed the legal process by which the measure arrived on the ballot, suggesting that it should not have appeared because the Planning Board voted unanimously not to favor the article and the Selectboard did not overturn the board’s decision.

Speaking during last night’s discussion, Planning Board Chairman Carl Hanson said each board member may have had particular reasons to not support the proposal, but that overall, board members worried about the prime designation creating confusion by overlapping with already existing laws.

While the commission did a “tremendous” amount of work to create the wetlands map, he suggested more time could be spent in the future determining exactly how the “prime” designation would affect those lands.

According to preliminary results, residents did approve a general map of wetlands last night, including 54 properties. Early tallies showed that article passing in Australian ballot voting, 240-188.

Voters also narrowly accepted the Police Department’s request seeking $35,00 to replace its 2007 Dodge Durango 4x4, after rejecting a similar request last year. That passed in secret balloting, 86-79.

After it passed, Chief Walter Madore breathed an apparent sigh of relief, whispering a soft “thank you.”

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