Monadnock Region residents tend to take a provincial attitude toward this little corner of New Hampshire. That is, we think it’s grand, despite the downsides of being a rural-ish region lacking some of the amenities of cities and towns closer to Boston or other major cities. The scenic splendor of the Monadnock Region is one of the main quality-of-life benefits often cited in this respect. That includes the opportunity to hike, bike, fish, swim, sail, hunt, leaf-peep, ski, snowshoe, snowmobile and more. And to spy fox, deer, loons, bears, moose and other wildlife.
For the past 30 years, the Monadnock Conservancy has been working to preserve that regional atmosphere. It’s certainly not the only group doing so — the Harris Center, Nature Conservancy and Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests have similar aims and are active in the region — but it’s been among the most aggressive and successful. At this point, it’s protected roughly 20,000 acres of land in southwestern New Hampshire from development — nearly 4 percent of the region’s acreage.
The organization’s recent focus has been on preserving farmland. Just within the past month or so, announcements were made of deals to conserve the 350-acre Chickering Farm in Westmoreland and 110 acres owned by the Royce family in Jaffrey. And more are coming.
Though the group welcomes donations and has on occasion bought land outright, its main tool is conservation easements — agreements not to develop a parcel, which convey with any future sale of the land. What makes this effective is twofold: It keeps the land undeveloped, but in private hands, and thus on the tax rolls; and it provides the landowner some revenue while still allowing the use of the property and a potential sale down the road.
But when and if that sale takes place, surely the property owner is going to get far less for land that can’t be developed, right? Stacy Cibula, Monadnock Conservancy’s conservation project manager, notes the process is designed specifically to avoid that. In fact, a third-party assessor is hired to gauge what the development potential is and what that amounts to in sale value.
The conservancy then offers the difference between the value of the developable property and what it’s worth if it can’t be developed, in exchange for the easement. One might believe still that broken up essentially into two sales — of the development rights and the land — the property wouldn’t be worth as much, but there’s the added value to the seller of getting paid now while retaining the property for as long as it makes sense.
Cibula also says farms have been a target for the organization largely because of increasing economic pressures on farmers, which put those lands, which are generally already cleared and easily subdivided, more at risk. In fact, she says there’s more interest in such easements from area landowners than the conservancy has funds to pursue.
“Development pressure is only going to increase in this area,” she says.
All of this isn’t to say development is bad; it’s necessary and, done well, a huge boon economically. But in a region that depends largely upon an atmosphere of mountains, rivers, forests and fields to draw residents and tourists, maintaining as much of that natural beauty as possible is essential.