AYER — With passage of two articles on the recent Special Town Meeting warrant, voters agreed to establish a Conservation Fund and to make an initial deposit of $500,000, transferred from Community Preservation Act funds set aside for public recreation and open space. The other two CPA-fundable categories allowed by state law – MGL 44B — are affordable housing and historic preservation.
Conservation Commission Chairman William Daniels characterized the proposal as a “rapid response plan” that will allow his board to act fast when a chance to acquire conservation land comes up. Existing protocol bogs down the process, he said, citing a setup that involves multiple entities and actions, including approval at Town Meeting, which generally convenes only twice a year.
“We’ve missed many opportunities that way,” Daniels said.
With ready cash as “leverage,” the commissioners can be proactive and able to negotiate deals with land owners, he said. For example, when a parcel that has been tax-protected as agricultural or farm land under provisions of state law – Chapter 61 or 61-A – comes “out of Chapter…” and up for sale. The town has right of first refusal in such cases, Daniels pointed out but often must pass, perhaps sacrificing a scenic meadow or woodland to development.
But with a Conservation Fund in place, the selectmen could turn to the Conservation Commission, which could then act on its own to bid on the land when appropriate. The land in question could be a valuable link between existing conservation land, say to continue a recreational trail, Daniels said, adding that owners might have preservation rather than development in mind in the first place.
Land or Fund donations may also be made directly, without requiring Town Meeting approval.
Janet Providakes, who chairs the CPC, said the proposed move only makes sense. An appointed group that under the law must include representative members from Conservation, Historic and Parks and Recreation boards, its charge includes overseeing CPA coffers, reviewing project applications and making funding recommendations to Town Meeting.
As it stands, the CPA fund has $1.2 million in its Open Space Account, Providakes said.
Asked if the new arrangement could lead to conflicts between the two boards, Daniels said he didn’t foresee any, but if “differences of opinion” do arise, they can be addressed at a public hearing. “Yes, we could use the money without consulting CPC, but we’ll be going back for more…in the future and for that reason, if no other, we’ll continue to work together,” he said.
Ayer’s CPA nest egg was set up in 2000, when town voters adopted the new state law. Funding comes from a one-percent annual property tax surcharge voters agreed to, with matching funds from the state.
Originally dollar for dollar, amounts the state kicks in have varied since.
Making his pitch for the Conservation Fund, Daniels noted, “It’s spending your money on things you’ve said you want to spend it on.”
Both articles passed unanimously.