Lebanon Considering Program to Encourage Land Conservation

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/12/2018 12:29:49 AM
Modified: 2/12/2018 11:16:20 AM

Lebanon — Conservation officials are mulling a change in tactics to protect some of the city’s most sensitive wildlife habitats.

Instead of purchasing city properties outright, the Lebanon Conservation Commission is proposing a new program that would allow landowners to obtain conservation easements using city funds to pay for expenses such as legal fees.

The proposal has the potential to save the city thousands of dollars, while also protecting open space from development, officials said.

However, in order for it to work, the city will first need to recruit landowners willing to forgo potential revenue from a land sale in order to conserve their properties.

“Your high-value open space contributes to the positive and healthy way of life we all enjoy here in Lebanon, and we would like to help you protect it in perpetuity for the benefit of all future generations of Lebanon residents,” reads a draft letter the city is considering sending to a select group of landowners who have high-priority properties.

The Conservation Commission is scheduled to discuss the letter and the future of the program next month.

About 120 property owners could then receive the call to action soon afterward, according to minutes of the commission’s December meeting.

Talk of creating an easement program dates back several years. The impetus stems from concerns that Lebanon might not have the resources to buy prime parcels, said City Councilor Erling Heistad on Sunday.

Traditionally, the city looked to its Open Space Trust, or LOST fund, to purchase properties deemed to have a high conservation value.

The fund is replenished by the fees imposed when a property changes its tax status for development purposes.

But the city cannot rely on the LOST fund forever, said Heistad, who also sits on the Conservation Commission.

Development within Lebanon’s forests appears to be slowing down, he said, meaning it’s unlikely the fund will see an uptick in contributions anytime soon.

What money is left might not be enough to buy all the land that should be conserved, Heistad added.

The LOST fund had a balance of $634,535 as of October, according to the  city budget, and it’s possible for parcels to be valued at hundreds of thousands.

Last year, the city took $125,000 from the fund to purchase a 108-acre property near the Storrs Hill Ski Area. Another $125,000 from the state Department of Environmental Services also contributed to the purchase of what city officials call the “Ticknor Woodlands,” named after the family that once farmed the land.

The property, which is within walking distance to downtown, includes 14 acres of wetlands, a network of trails and historic cellar holes dug by some of the city’s early residents.

While purchasing the parcel benefited the city, the Conservation Commission also believes there are other, potentially cheaper ways to protect land in the future, Heistad said.

The program under review would open LOST funds to some landowners looking to obtain a conservation easement for their property, he said.

In certain cases, the trust money could help pay for legal costs of obtaining an easement, which is a deed that permanently preserves land for certain uses.

“Many people appreciate their land and the beauty of that land, and would like to see it preserved in some way. And yet, there are legal costs to make that happen,” Heistad said. “I think many people have a concern for their land and would like to see it protected.”

The proposed move would mimic successful programs in surrounding communities, said Jeanie McIntyre, president of the Upper Valley Land Trust.

Towns have successfully used conservation funds to incentivize landowners to either donate their properties or obtain an easement, she said on Sunday.

However, she said, it’s also likely that Lebanon will continue to purchase properties when an easement isn’t feasible.

“I think that (the program) might be less of a change than adding another tool to the toolbox for them,” McIntyre said.

Details of the easement program aren’t final, according to Clarke Dustin, the Conservation Commission’s vice chairman.

While members are in support of the idea, he said, it’s not yet clear who would receive a letter or how the program would be administered.

“We haven’t finalized it by any means,” he said of the letter on Sunday.

The Conservation Commission is scheduled to discuss the proposed program when it next meets at 7 p.m. on March 8 in City Hall.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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