Freedom Boards Discuss Authority Over Town Forest

Freedom — October 26, 2006 — In a joint meeting, the selectmen and members of the Freedom Conservation Commission (FCC) and the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) discussed the issue of ultimate authority over the town’s forest. Most agreed that the three groups should work together in managing the Trout Pond property.

“We all agree [managing the forest] is a shared responsibility,” Katie Gove said.

“The [FAC] is doing their job as the hands-on eyes and ears” for the forest, said FCC chairman Greg Bossart. [The FAC] was established for the forest. It’s not about ‘you,’ ‘me,’ or ‘them.’ It’s about the integrity of the forest.”

The goal of the meeting, said selectmen’s chairman Les Babb, was to clarify the selectmen’s role in the management plan. The boards reviewed a letter written by the town attorney, Peter Malia, regarding the management plan and the selectmen’s role in managing the property.

Attorney Phil McLaughlin was present, representing the conservation commission. Based on his interpretation of the stewardship plan, Malia said the selectmen would receive proposals that have been approved first by the FAC and then by the FCC. If neither group approves a proposal, the selectmen would not hear about it unless the applicant is unhappy with the decisions.

Once the proposal reaches the selectmen, Babb said, the board would review the project for financial impacts to the town as well as making sure the project met the stewardship plan.

“I don’t care if the [FCC] allows the White Mountain Milers to run a marathon on the land,” Babb said, “but I would like a copy of the minutes” of the meeting where that event was allowed to take place.

If the FCC allows an event with more of an impact, such as drag racing on the old airstrip, he added, these events will also have more financial impact, by requiring more police officers to monitor, more environmental impact, and the project would not be in compliance with the easement. Such a project would be sent back to the FAC with a suggestion of further review, Babb said.

Each board must give reasons why it supports or does not support a project, he added, before the project moves onto the next board.

Beth Earle, of the FCC said she was concerned with the wording “ultimate authority,” and thought it could be misinterpreted in the future, if not by the current board. She said it sounds as if the selectmen have veto power over the decisions of the other two boards and can overturn any of their decisions.

Malia said the selectmen could only send the application back to the FAC with a specific recommendation to review certain points again, not veto it outright. Earle said she did not think that sentence could be clearly interpreted that way and suggested the attorneys discuss it together and come up with the appropriate wording.

Selectman Donna Cupka said having the selectmen involved would just provide one more level of checks and balances in the effort to monitor the easement.

Selectmen Jim Breslin disagreed in principle with the attorney’s interpretation of the selectmen’s role. He said the selectmen should have a stronger, more decisive role and be allowed to vote a project up or down instead of sending it back to the FAC to be reviewed again. People making the application should have an avenue through which to voice their complaints and appeals. The board of selectmen should be the place where they bring those concerns, he said.

Cupka said that some people, if their applications are denied by the first two boards, will need a place to go because they will sue the town because it is in their nature.

Babb suggested looking at how boards are currently set up in town as a model for the selectmen’s role. He said in town, those who do not agree with decisions made by the planning board could appeal their decisions to the zoning board. The only thing the selectmen can do in this case is call in the zoning board to discuss their decisions and try to bring them back on track, he said. If an applicant is still not happy, they can take the board to court.

There was discussion on the differences between the warrant articles in the 2004 and 2005 town meetings. Over the past few months, the FCC has said the 2004 warrant article does not give the selectmen the ultimate authority on Trout Pond property but rather the FCC.

Malia said that the 2004 warrant article bought the town forest, and had the FCC as the managing entity. The 2005 article, he said, established the stewardship plan as the management plan and giving the selectmen the “sole discretion” to approve “documents necessary for such purchase and management” of the property. The groups could be to draft up a warrant article for the 2007 meeting to clarify the issue, he said. Only Peter Schiller said that should happen.

FAC member Steve Jones said, “I was on the board that wrote the plan. I think we all thought we were putting it together the way we were supposed to. The issue (of ultimate authority) was discussed. I thought the final decision was with the selectboard. If we don’t understand how it works, the state will come in saying, ‘You can’t handle this'” and start managing it themselves.”

As it currently stands, the FCC receives any plans, reviews them, and sends them to the FAC, which also makes recommendations. The entire packet, if approved by both boards, gets sent to the selectmen, who will provide a final review to make sure the project would not be in violation of the easement or would have a major financial impact on town.

All members, except Cupka, agreed to let the lawyers confer on the wording Malia has put forward regarding the order of operations for the three boards and the meaning of the phrase giving ultimate authority to the selectmen.

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