Purchase by the town of a conservation easement on a piece of East Derry land off Island Pond Road passed by a narrow margin at the Aug. 4 Town Council meeting.
While some Councilors and Conservation Chairman Margaret Ives lauded the purchase as a necessary one and a strong addition to Derry’s conservation land, other Councilors and members of the public wondered when land would be protected in West Derry, the urban portion of town on the west side of Route 28.
The Council voted 4-3 to approve the easement, with David Fischer, Phyllis Katsakiores, Joshua Bourdon and Richard Tripp in the affirmative and Mark Osborne, Albert Dimmock and Chair Tom Cardon voting in the negative.
Ives introduced the property, co-owned by Dorothy Gunther and Victor Nelson and officially named “Buttonwood Farms.” The property consists of two parcels on either side of Island Pond Road, she said: Tax Map 4, Lot 67 and Tax Map 6, Lot 37, at 189 and 194 Island Pond Road bordering Gulf Road and Ballard Pond. The two parcels total approximately 110 acres, she said.
The easement will be held by the Southeast Land Trust, and Land Trust staff member David Viale was present to answer questions.
The cost of purchasing the easement is $730,000 and the town would be responsible for up to $386,000, with the remainder coming from a Moose Plate Grant ($15,000), $396,876 from a Department of Environmental Services Water Supply Land Protection Grant, and a contribution of $3,750 from the property owners.
The town’s share of the easement price will be taken from the Conservation Commission Special Revenue Fund, which is funded by the Land Use Change Tax (LUCT).
“It is a beautiful property, a mixture of pasture and forest,” Ives said. “It’s been on our list for a while.”
Viale said the “clear factor” in approving the project is that an easement will prevent 24 homes from being built on the property.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, community member and former Councilor Janet Fairbanks led the Council through a visualization exercise. “Imagine you are getting off Exit 4 and taking a right on 102,” Fairbanks said. “Look at the congestion in West Derry. Envision the commercial and industrial development, envision driving down the street, any street, and envision the number of cars, homes and trees. As soon as you hit the traffic circle, you see the difference.”
Fairbanks has been advocating for more conservation land in West Derry since 1998, she said. “I am frustrated when I see the Land Use Change Tax money, which should go back to all taxpayers, spent solely on East Derry,” she said.
Fairbanks also said that while the purchase of the easement would save East Derry from 24 houses, if the same parcel existed in her part of town, “They would throw condos on it.”
Resident Maureen Rose listed conservation properties and the prices paid for them. “We as a town have not spent a penny in West Derry,” she said.
Rose would like to see more open space downtown, with trees and benches to rest on. “It’s too hot with all the concrete,” she pointed out.
Rose advocated for a more equitable system, where the town was divided into voting districts and the LUCT allocated to whatever district the property was in.
But former Councilor Brian Chirichiello took the microphone to observe, “The last time I checked, this is Derry. Not East Derry or West Derry.”
Chirichiello agreed that there was a need in West Derry, but added, “If the 24 homes are built and each home has two children, it costs $12,000 per child to educate them. This is a good move. I understand the need in West Derry, but this project is the one in front of us now.”
One of the talking points by the Conservation Commission is that the Gunther/Nelson land would be contiguous with other conserved parcels. Fairbanks observed, “If we never buy land in West Derry, how can we ever have a wildlife corridor there?”
Ives said that zoning drives what goes on parcels and how the town ultimately develops. “You’ve got industrial, commercial, one-acre zoning, two-acre, three-acre,” she said. “The apartments ‘follow’ town water and sewer.”
Ives also said that any conservation property is available to any resident of Derry. One of the most used properties, the Broadview Farms on Young Road, has been used by Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and other organizations. And its Community Gardens host 51 gardeners from all parts of town, she said.
In its discussion, the Council had mixed reviews for the proposal. Tripp, a former Conservation Commission member, said, “I served on the Planning Board and on Conservation. I agree with Margie on the zoning. There are some properties we’ve watched for a number of years, waiting till the owners are ready. There are 14 to 15 items we rate property on, and this one meets the criteria. It’s a nice piece of property.”
The sticking point for Tripp is that Gunther and Nelson have not decided on public access to the property or permitted uses, he said.
“My concern,” Fischer said, “is about equity in the money we spend for open space. I’m in favor of conservation, but I’m concerned about West Derry. Why hasn’t more effort been put in here?”
Osborne asked how much of the property is “buildable,” and Viale said an appraisal was done to look at the development potential. In the appraisal, he said, they looked at the physical characteristics of the property and town zoning before coming up with the 24 potential houses.
Katsakiores asked Ives why money was not allotted to conserve in West Derry.
Ives said the Commission looks for parcels that are 10 acres or larger.
Dimmock asked where the Conservation Commission “gets its money” and Ives reviewed the LUCT process with him. “The owners have to pay 10 percent of their deferred taxes when they take the property out of Current Use,” she said, “and the money goes into the Conservation Fund.”
Dimmock asked how much of a tax break Gunther and Nelson had “enjoyed” and observed, “We’re not getting that money back.” But Ives pointed out that under the easement, the owners would still pay taxes.
Bourdon, participating by speaker phone, asked Ives, “What are the criteria for conservation?”
Ives said criteria included wildlife habitat, agriculture, wetlands, aesthetic value and historical value.
The vote was 4-3 in favor of purchasing the easement. After the vote Cardon, who voted in the negative, said, “That was a hard vote for me.”
Cardon, the Council’s representative to the Conservation Commission, said. “It’s an important piece of land. But West Derry needs conservation land, too.”