Derry will continue to allow the Conservation Commission to receive 100 percent of the Land Use Change Tax, after a move to reduce the Commission’s portion of the revenues did not receive a majority vote.
The Town Council addressed the matter of the Land Use Change Tax, or LUCT, at its Tuesday, Sept. 16 meeting.
Several townspeople and Councilors had floated the idea of returning all or a portion of the funds back to the town to reduce the property tax burden. But open space advocates came out Sept. 16 and to a previous public hearing to prove that where the LUCT is concerned, conservation is the better bargain.
On April 1, 1997, the then-Council had voted to allot all of the LUCT, the tax funds recovered when a property is taken out of Current Usage, to the Conservation Commission for the purchase of property and easements. In June of this year the current Council voted to hold a public hearing on possible changes to the percentage of the LUCT given to Conservation.
While the discussion last week was not a public hearing, Council Chair Mark Osborne allowed members of the public to speak on possible changes to the LUCT when that agenda item came up.
Paul Doolittle, a former member of the Commission, said he and his late father had spent many years working on conservation projects. “There was some success, some heartbreak,” he said. “Now the sources of funding are drying up, and many precious pieces of land are lost to us.”
Maureen Reno, chairman of the Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee, expressed concern for her daughter, 6, and her daughter’s generation. “I’m trying to teach her an appreciation for nature, and the only way we can do that is through experience,” she said, noting that the family has taken advantage of swimming in Beaver Lake and hiking the town’s various trails.
Reno also noted that the school system is “taxed” and that developing property for homes would further tax it. “To have a school bursting at the seams would break my daughter’s heart,” she said. She told the Councilors, “You have the power to control this.”
Reno added that while she understood the Council’s determination to be fiscally responsible, the Conservation Commission often needed to act in an “expedient:” manner.
Attorney and resident Gordon Graham broke the problem down into three areas: “Tax rate, tax rate, tax rate.” “That’s the main reason you should keep the current percentage,” he said. “The Land Use Change Tax is one of the best tools in the municipal toolbox.”
Graham explained that because of the purchase of conservation land and easements, coupled with zoning changes and a growth control ordinance, residential growth in Derry has slowed. That means the schools are less crowded and the Pinkerton Academy tuition rate is stable, he said. He pointed out that conserved land uses far fewer town services than residential property. He quoted RSA 78:81 as saying that conserving land “has few if any cost on local government, and thus is beneficial to citizens.”
Resident Les Seaboyer agreed, pointing out that 246 homes with two children each could generate as much as $3,936,000 in town services. “The trade-off,” Seaboyer said, “is not there.”
Resident Cecile Cormier said, “We need that money to match grants.”
“It saves us money,” resident Ellie Sarcione said. “You’re not going to get what you think if you take the money away from Conservation.”
And Conservation member Ric Buzzanga warned that with the widening of Interstate 93, “The developers are coming. We need the money in our coffers.”
Pennies on the Dollar
Opponents of changing the distribution also said that it wouldn’t bring that much in savings. Reno’s calculations said the Land Use Change Tax, if diverted to reducing the tax rate, would be 1/10 of 1 percent of the combined town and school budgets. “Or $7.70 per year I would pay, which is two cups of coffee,” she said, brandishing a dollar bill. Reno said she would gladly give up two cups of coffee to preserve open space.
Seaboyer said that over 10 years, $1,145,103 had gone to Conservation from the LUCT. That averages out to $114,570 a year, he said. In Seaboyer’s calculations, that’s .0025 percent of a $45 million town budget. With that money, matching grants and other funds, he said, the Commission has managed to purchase 952 acres outright and acquire 279 acres of easements on other people’s property.
Sarcione also said she was tired of hearing the “East Derry, West Derry” argument some community members had put forth. “We’re all Derry,” she said.
Though some residents had been vocal in the past about reducing Conservation’s share of the LUCT, only Marc Flattes spoke in favor of a reduction last week. Flattes favored reducing Conservation’s share to 25 percent and allotting the rest, with 40 percent going back to the taxpayers and 35 percent for “sustainable improvements” such as LED lighting and solar power. Flattes, a member of the Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee, said there would be a substantial payback with the infrastructure improvements.
“We need to take this back,” Flattes said.
Conservation Chair Margaret Ives said the fund currently contains $600,000, though not all of it is earmarked for purchasing easements or land.
Councilor Michael Fairbanks asked Ives what the Commission’s plans were for the current funds. Ives said she hoped to discuss a piece of land that is “on the table” in an October nonpublic session with the Council. Discussions about potential purchases and with landowners are done in nonpublic session, she reminded the Council and television audience.
Fairbanks suggested amending the percentage of the LUCT to 25 percent to Conservation. Osborne seconded it.
Councilor Albert Dimmock said he had spoken to his constituents, and only one supported keeping the percentage going to Conservation at 100 percent.
But several other Councilors were unconvinced. “I know this Council has a deep appreciation for reducing taxes,” Councilor David Fischer said. “But we need to consider the merits and mission of the Conservation Commission. I’d like it to stay at 100 percent.”
Councilor Joshua Bourdon said, “I don’t think the revenue we’d bring in by reducing Conservation’s portion would outweigh the potential for savings. The Land Use Change Tax is a weapon in our arsenal.” Bourdon said he supported keeping it at 100 percent.
Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores agreed, saying, “The people have spoken.”
Councilor Tom Cardon, who was attending the meeting by a conference call, said, “It’s an important way to preserve land and the best thing to do for the people of Derry.”
The vote was 3-4 on Fairbanks’ motion, with Bourdon, Cardon, Fischer and Katsakiores voting against it and Osborne, Dimmock and Fairbanks in favor of it. No other proposals were brought forth.