WALLINGFORD — After a few weeks of debate during which the Select Board was undecided about supporting a sale of 481 acres to the National Forest, it voted Monday to back the purchase.
The vote was 4 to 1 in favor with Selectman John McClallen the sole “no” vote.
The board was approached in September by the owners of Fernfield Farms Ltd., the U.S. Forest Service and the Trust for Public Land, seeking the town’s support in the sale of 481 acres belonging to Fernfield Farms to the Forest Service. The “White Rocks Gateway” as the parcel would be called is near the White Rocks Picnic Ground. Proponents said the sale would preserve the land and protect access to hiking trails in the area.
In past meetings, board members expressed concerns about the sale’s potential impact on taxes and the amount of land in town owned by the federal government. According to the Trust for Public Land, the sale would result in the town losing approximately $1,500 per year in tax revenue, assuming this year’s tax figures were to be used. The town would, however, receive money from the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program (PILOT), leading to a net loss of between $200 and $300.
Because those figures only relate to the municipal tax, board members had concerns about the impact to the school taxes.
“I understand you received some information from the state that the education taxes are not going to be affected,” said Kate Wanner, project manager for the Trust for Public Land, at Monday’s meeting.
The board had conducted its own research into the school tax question.
“That appears to be what we found out,” said Select Board Chairman Nelson Tift, “that the school tax won’t be affected.”
Jeremy Krohn, of Wallingford, said even the worst-case scenario, which is unlikely, would be the town losing $1,500 in taxes and gaining more revenue in the long run.
“This isn’t including the benefits that are hard to put a dollar value on,” he said, adding that the land being protected would increase local property values and bring more visitors to the area. “They stop at Sal’s, they stop at the new cafe, they bring in revenue. My point is we can’t rule out those benefits. Even in the worst case, we’re down $1,500, but we’d also be up on these other potential things.”
Others in support of the sale agreed, adding that it would serve to protect water quality.
Krohn said several hundred people turned out last year for forums held by the Vermont Council on Rural Development and the list of priorities people came up with was centered around conserving land for recreational use.
“From that they developed three priorities, and the priority was not to conserve land for private development, it was to promote recreational use of the land and the strength of the community. This fits in with those priorities. I don’t remember anybody saying you know what the problem with Wallingford is, is there’s too much land being conserved. I see properties available — we’re not in a shortage of property,” he said.
McClallen still had reservations about supporting the sale.
“I’d like to point out one more thing, especially with this recreation thing and keeping that property for recreation, it’s going to sit there anyway and probably no one will ever buy it, but the federal government already owns almost a third of the real estate in Wallingford. That’s plenty of land. If they want to buy it, they’re going to buy it anyway, they don’t need our permission,” he said.
Money for the purchase will come from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, has an unwritten policy about having town support for land purchases using money from that fund. In a past interview, Wanner said although the letter of support isn’t required, it’s preferable to have it.
She said in a Tuesday interview the sale won’t go through for another three years. It won’t be until the 2021 fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1, 2020, that the budget for the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be set. The sale price for the land will be based on an appraisal, which also hasn’t been done yet.