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Kayakers paddle near the Deerneck boat launch at Lake Massabesic in Auburn. Manchester Water Works is looking for a buyer for 7,200 acres of forestland it has managed for more than a century. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Hope that twin goals of saving land and lowering tax bills can dovetail

MANCHESTER — Four organizations have put in bids to acquire 7,200 acres of forestland that surround Lake Massabesic, land that Manchester Water Works says it must relinquish after owning and managing it for more than a century.

Interested buyers include the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, two other land trusts and a Port Angeles, Wash., company that specializes in timberland investment and management. All four would have to agree to numerous deed restrictions, including protection to the Lake Massabesic watershed and access to the land by Water Works.

Manchester Water Works Director David Paris said the sale is needed to avoid property tax bills that amount to $670,000 a year to the towns of Auburn, Hooksett, Chester and Candia. Tax bills shot up in the late 1990s due to "feature values" such as the view tax, he said.

New Hampshire courts have ruled against efforts by Water Works to value the land as conservation land for tax purposes. Water Works has been unable to change tax laws to allow for the substantially lower valuations, Paris said.

"We're very reluctant going forward with this. We feel we've been great stewards for the last one hundred years of this watershed," Paris said. But he said the tax burden is difficult to justify when Water Works can sell the property to a buyer who will agree to preserve it in perpetuity.

The land sale will involve thousands of acres of well-known conservation located east of Manchester. It includes land with recreation trails around the lake, the Little Massabesic area and Tower Hill Pond.

The sale involves land used by a number of organizations and businesses — Massabesic Yacht Club, Sandy's Variety and Bonsai Restaurant at the Massabesic Traffic Circle, St. Peter Catholic Church and Fairhaven Baptist Church. Also included: two lakefront vacation homes, gravel pits, boat launches and a police shooting range.

According to the Water Works bid documents, bidders are encouraged to seek a water supply land protection grant from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

Deed restrictions would allow Manchester Water Works to retain much control over the property. For example, any subdivision and sale of land would have to be approved by Water Works, and Water Works would be able to access the property and its lakes and streams whenever it deemed necessary.

Also, it would have final say on forestry practices, and revenues such as timber harvesting would be shared with Water Works.

But Paris said some decisions, such as continuing leases and public access to the property, will be out of Water Works' hands. He noted that several of the organizations seeking to purchase the land have a commitment to access for recreational purposes.

"Down the road, what we're trying to accomplish is preservation of Massabesic in perpetuity," he said. "We understand selling the property means we'll no longer be able to make all the decisions on the property."

One of the potential buyers, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, keeps nearly all its forestlands open for public access, said spokesman Jack Savage. He said the Massabesic purchase would allow the organization to demonstrate its mission of sustainable forestry in the state's largest urban area.

"It's one thing to practice forestry in the hinterlands," Savage said. "At some point, it becomes important to demonstrate that work right where the people live."

Paris does not expect a decision will be made until the fall or early winter. Both the Board of Water Commissioners and Manchester aldermen will have to approve the sale.

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