August 26. 2013 7:23PM

Bill Herman: Auburn's perspective on the Manchester Water Works land

THERE IS NO dispute that Manchester Water Works has historically been an exemplary steward of the property in its charge, and the 7,200 acres of Lake Massabesic watershed has provided hiking, biking, walking, fishing and similar pursuits for the public for decades. Despite differences over the value of the property and the statutorily required taxation of same, the Manchester Water Works (MWW) and the Town of Auburn have experienced a positive relationship over the years.

Here is Auburn's side of the story.

Over time the town has acquired land from MWW for the location of the Auburn Village School, and later for the Auburn Public Safety Complex. The town has been able to establish a park and playground on several pieces of MWW property. The Auburn Police Department has appointed the various Watershed Patrol Officers of the MWW as part-time law enforcement officers in Auburn to enable them to fully perform their task of patrolling and enforcing the laws affecting this area.

In 2011, the Town of Auburn, MWW, the Southeast Land Trust, the NH Land and Community Heritage Investment Program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture combined efforts and resources to acquire and preserve 133-acres of pristine land on the Battery Point section of Lake Massabesic. This is just a snapshot to indicate that there has been a positive relationship.

But the cost of owning the watershed property has long been an area of contention that has led to many lawsuits and efforts in the Legislature to change things in favor of the land owner. Without question, the current statutes, which have been in place for about 100 years, were deliberately put there to apply specifically to this type of situation to ensure that one municipality could not eviscerate another municipality's revenue source: namely its property tax base.

While there is certainly regional value to maintaining the existing status of the Massabesic watershed property, there is a related cost. That cost was recognized by the New Hampshire Legislature more than 100 years ago and has been reaffirmed in various decisions since, the most recent of which was in 2012.

In short, watersheds are big places. If these large tracts are to be kept out of the tax base, the Legislation has acted to protect a smaller host community by requiring a payment in lieu of taxes.

Of the 7,200-acres owned by the City of Manchester in the four neighboring communities, more than half (4,000-acres) is in the Town of Auburn. That represents fully one-quarter of the land in Auburn and, arguably, it is the most valuable land in the community because of the water-front nature of much of the property.

The $670,000 in property taxes is not the full value property tax amount. The full value would be closer to $825,000. The lower amount was a negotiated settlement between the two parties to resolve a pending Superior Court suit.The public needs to understand that every dollar of reduction provided to this one property owner will result in a dollar increase to all the other property taxpayers in Auburn. While the property represents 25 percent of the land in Auburn, the payment represents approximately 13 percent of the town's budget.

In this most recent Legislative session, with the assistance of state Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, Auburn officials led an effort to have state law changed to allow entities like Manchester and Auburn to negotiate a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) amount. Before, the law required the payment to be equal to the full market value of the property. That change was signed into law.

This is not just a Manchester and Auburn issue. There are similar types of watershed properties throughout the state, such as Keene and Roxbury, Gorham and Randolph, Rochester and Barrington.

In all cases, it is the larger community owning property in the smaller community.With the recent change in state law that took effect June 20 of this year, there is clearly a statutory mechanism in place to allow an entity like Manchester Water Works to retain its impressive stewardship of public land without selling off its valuable asset to a third party.

What is needed is a pragmatic understanding of each party's needs and a desire to sacrifice short-term gains in exchange for the long-term benefit of having the Manchester Water Works continue its care and maintenance of the watershed property into the indefinite future.

Bill Herman is the Auburn town administrator.