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Grantham Grapples Over Conservation

Residents to Vote on Whether to Designate ‘Prime Wetland’ Areas

Grantham’s annual school meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. on March, 5, at the Grantham Village School. The Town Meeting will take place at 5 p.m. on March 12, at the Grantham Town Hall. Voting for ballot measures, including electing town officers, will take place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on March 12, at Grantham Town Hall.

Grantham — Months of brewing tensions over how to designate the town’s wetlands is setting the stage for a Town Meeting in which voters will be met with conflicting warrant articles on the issue.

Article 3, a ballot article, asks voters if they are in favor of designating eight parcels of land as “prime wetlands.” The Conservation Commission put the article forward as a way to provide better protection for the wetlands that need it most.

Standing in contrast is Article 6, a petitioned article which the town considers to be a non-binding referendum. It asks voters if they are against designating those eight parcels as prime wetlands, which petitioners say imposes undue restrictions on neighboring property owners.

Complicating the issue is a procedural debate about the way Article 3 made it onto the ballot. Ultimately, none of the parties involved is supporting the measure, including the commission that brought it forward.

“It’s one of those situations where we have found that even those who are intimately involved in the legal process have a difference of opinion,” said Dick Hocker, who chairs the Conservation Commission.

Officials from the town administration, Selectboard and Planning Board stand behind the process, citing other areas of state statute. Planning Board Chairman Carl Hanson, an attorney, acknowledged the pertinent laws can be confusing.

“I haven’t found a great deal of disagreement, but I will say that it’s a complicated issue. It’s not straightforward, so people can come to different conclusions without much trouble,” Hanson said.

Elsewhere on the warrant, the police department is again seeking $35,000, including $20,000 to be raised by taxes and $15,000 from the capital reserve, to replace a cruiser and trade in its 2007 Dodge Durango. Voters last year shot down a similar request.

Including all warrant articles, the $3.1 million budget represents an 8 percent increase over the one approved last year.

Grantham’s current municipal tax rate is $2.61 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $653 on a $250,000 home. Town Administrator Melissa White said the new tax rate would be determined in October once revenues are clearer and the town decides how much to withdraw from reserve funds to offset any tax increase.

But discussion is expected to be dominated by the wetlands issue. The commission’s interpretation of the law leads commissioners to believe the process to add the article to the ballot was flawed and could be challenged in future years, causing it to withdraw support for the article.

According to Hocker, the Conservation Commission proposed to the Planning Board two warrant articles — Article 2, a new map of the town’s 54 wetlands, and Article 3, which would designate eight of them as prime, including Stocker Pond, Bog Brook, Chase Pond, Grass Pond West, Lily Pond, Lower Eastman Brook, Upper Dunbar Hill Beaver Pond and Upper Stroing Brook. The Planning Board supported Article 2, but did not support Article 3.

From there, legal opinions diverge on what should have happened next. The commission’s position is that without the Planning Board’s support, the only way the article could go on the warrant would have been if the Selectboard had overturned the board’s decision, which did not happen. But members of the Planning Board and Selectboard disagree.

“Because these articles were owned by the Conservation Commission, the Planning Board couldn’t remove them. If the Conservation Commission wanted them removed, they could have gone to the Planning Board and asked the Planning Board to remove them. And the Conservation Commission didn’t do that,” said Selectwoman Connie Jones, who has been close to the process. “The Board of Selectmen had no jurisdiction. By law, we can’t take articles off like that, that had been heard and properly done. Our hands were tied.”

Article 6, petitioned by Stocker Pond resident Mauri Schwartz, is a way for opponents of the prime wetland designation to express their opposition, Schwartz said. White, the town administrator, said the town verified 71 signatures on the petition, and Schwartz said including spouses and other people involved, an opposition group called the Grantham Wetlands PAC is tied to 200 people.

“Putting this petition together to let everybody know how the (Grantham Wetlands PAC) felt was our way of having a voice,” she said. “And we felt we needed a voice.”

The prime wetlands designation is seen as a “regulatory taking,” she said, and “as part of that taking, without due process or compensation, that causes your property value to fall. When property values diminish ... the Grand List reflects the loss and the towns have to make up the difference in taxes, so your taxes will increase.”

The PAC has published ads in several newspapers, and one is scheduled to publish a long letter to the editor on the issue.

Hocker said the Planning Commission also disputes the way in which Article 6 was added to the ballot, claiming the procedure used to place it on the warrant was also flawed. Jones disputed those claims.

On the school side, voters will decide whether to approve a 1.4 percent budget increase.

If approved, a warrant article to approve the new teacher’s contract — which would increase total salaries by about $50,000 this year — would mark a 2 percent total increase over last year’s budget. The measure would increase teacher’s salaries over the current rate by $74,535 in 2014-15 and $73,935 in 2015-16. That would translate into annual raises of 2.25-2.5 percent over the next three years, in addition to the “step and track” increases teachers get as they gain experience and graduate degrees.

If the budget and warrant articles are approved, the current school tax rate would rise from $14.68 per $1,000 of assessed value to $14.75. That would give the owner of a $250,000 home a $3,688 tax bill, up $18.

Another article, which has no financial implication for the upcoming budget, seeks to gauge voters’ opinions on whether they’d like a World Language Program added to the school district’s curriculum.

There are no contested school or town elections this year. School Board Chairman Jeffrey Walla is not seeking reelection as he wraps up his second term, and John Eylander is running unopposed for that three-year seat. Jones, the selectwoman, is unopposed in her reelection bid, also for a three-year seat.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.