By APRIL GUILMET
Union Leader Correspondent
LONDONDERRY -- The Conservation Commission is considering the purchase of a $219,000 conservation easement on land owned by Merrill Orchards.
Residents are encouraged to attend a public hearing tonight in the Sunnycrest Conference Room at Town Hall. The meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m.
Located at 587 Mammoth Road, the parcel in question encompasses just over 20 acres abutting the Merrill family farm, conservation commissioner Mike Speltz said last week.
Speltz said the site, which contains a woodlot set on the highest point in northern Londonderry, is of particular interest since it’s adjacent to other conservation areas in town and therefore provides connections in the green infrastructure.
“It is on a hill, and there is an old town road running through the property,” Speltz said, noting that funding for the easement is available in the town’s open space fund.
Under terms of the easement, the Merrill family would still be permitted to use the site for various agricultural purchases.
The town of Londonderry holds other agricultural easements at both Sunnycrest and Moose Hill orchards, with 1,088 acres of the town’s 3,610 protected acres currently falling under conservation easements. Other protected sites in town include common land parcels, deed restrictions, town-owned parcels acquired for conservation, parcels owned by others for conservation purposes and open space, and parcels that are protected by the state Department of Transportation for airport access mitigation.
Londonderry’s open space program dates to 2001, when town officials formed an initial plan for keeping a percentage of the town’s land set aside for conservation purposes.
By 2005, the task force had conceptualized a more detailed plan, with specific areas in town mapped out for open space.
In 2006, the task force began drafting the town’s current open space program. Around the same time, the town had acquired a Geographic Information System (GIS), which was used to determine key types of open space resources that merit protection.
In most cases, landowners work closely with town officials in the purchase of a conservation easement, with the town and the landowner often splitting the cost of a property appraisal.
Once both agree on an appraised value, the Conservation Commission typically conducts a public hearing to consider an easement purchase. From there, the commission makes its final recommendation to the Town Council, which has the final say.
During the March 2010 Town Meeting, a citizens’ petition asking voters to place 20 percent of land use change taxes into the town’s open space fund was rejected during a secret ballot vote. Only 65 residents voted in the article’s favor, while 180 voted against the item.
The town’s conservation fund currently receives 100 percent of land use change tax funds, and during last year’s Town Meeting, conservation commissioner Deb Lievens had urged voters to reject the item, since she feared it could have ended town’s open space program.