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Seacoast Towns Find Fiscal Reasons to Favor Conservation Over Development

Jason Moon for NHPR
The Forest Society recently led guided tours of the property.

Population growth on New Hampshire’s Seacoast has led to rising real estate prices that can often mean more tax revenue for towns in the region. But three Seacoast towns are finding it can make fiscal sense to forego development in favor of conservation.

  On a recent afternoon, Brenda Charpentier with the New Hampshire Forest Society leads me down a trail in the woods in Lee.

“It has an extensive trail system on it already," she says, "because the owners just have had that interest…”

She’s showing me the Forest Society’s latest conservation project – nearly 200 acres of land that straddles the intersection of the towns of Durham, Lee and Madbury.

“We want to turn this whole piece into a forest reservation that would be protected for the future and that will be open to the public for recreation like horseback riding, hiking, skiing,” Charpentier says.

The land, known as the Powder Major Farm, is now in private hands. But the Forest Society is trying to raise a total of $2.25 million to buy it.

On this afternoon, the organization is leading a variety of guided tours of the property -- each designed to highlight a different reason for why the land should be preserved.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR
This stone marks the spot where the towns of Durham, Lee, and Madbury meet.

There’s the Oyster River, which runs through the property and supplies drinking water to the University of New Hampshire. There are threatened wildlife species to consider. And there’s historical value to the land, which was once home to Revolutionary War figure John Demeritt.

David Ervin lives in Madbury and came out to support the Forest Society’s event.

“We love it," he says. "We love that there are lands that are protected, that can stay in a pristine environment that really lets nature flourish.”

But the Forest Society and local conservation-minded residents aren’t the only ones interested in seeing the project through. All three towns – Durham, Lee, and Madbury, have contributed to the Forest Society’s effort. Together, they’ve donated about $350,000.

That may come as a surprise, given that a survey of the property found it could fit as many as 76 new home lots. For towns, new houses mean new property taxes.

But as Todd Selig, Durham's town administrator, explains, new houses can bring more than just new revenue.

“Often, additional houses do come with families," Selig says. "And our schools in Durham are at a very comfortable level of enrollment at the present time, but adding a large number of additional students could have additional financial impacts.”

One reason extra students can be costly to towns is the state's moratorium on school building.

Before the moratorium, if a growing district needed to build a new school, or even just an addition, the state might pay for upwards of half the cost. But since 2011, local school districts have been on their own when it comes to school construction.

And it’s not just school-related costs towns have to worry about, says Selig. The cost of building new infrastructure and providing emergency services to new residents can also strain a town’s finances.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

“You know people will often say: development, development, development -- that’s how you keep the tax base low," he says. "But in actuality, open spaced land is much less burdensome on the municipal budget than developed land. The squirrels and the deer are not calling for services, where residents do.”

Luckily for Selig, the current owners of the property also want the land preserved and are offering it at a discount to the Forest Society.

The Forest Society has until the end of the year to raise enough money to buy the property.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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