Gorham and Randolph selectmen meet today in non-public session

RANDOLPH — The Gorham and Randolph boards of selectmen will meet in non-public session at 4:30 p.m. this afternoon at the Randolph Town Hall, presumably to discuss the recently-received 2019 tax bill on Gorham’s watershed property located in Randolph.

The meeting is cited under RSA 91-A:3, II(e) “consideration or negotiation of pending claims or litigation which has been threatened in writing or filed by or against this board or any subdivision thereof … until the claim or litigation has been fully adjudicated or otherwise settled.”

It comes only eight days after the Gorham selectmen called a public meeting that included members of the town Water and Sewer Commission and the Town Forest Committee to get their advice on how best to handle 2019 tax bill.

The latest bill — technically a payment in lieu of taxes or PILT — is almost double the 2018 bill, increasing from some $19,600 to nearly $36,000. This unanticipated jump made them feel blindsided, board member Judy LeBlanc said.

The Gorham selectmen have already filed an appeal/abatement action on its 2018 tax bill with the state Bureau of Tax and Land Appeals.

The three-person Gorham and Randolph select boards met on June 24, 2019, at Gorham Town Hall (in an online taped session) to see if Randolph would consider cutting its valuation to bring it more in line what it would be if the acreage were in “current use.” A number of New Hampshire cities and towns have water source lands in one or more neighboring cities and towns, but under state law, these lands could not be taxed at the substantially lower “current use” rates.

Commenting on the 2019 tax bill sent by Randolph to Gorham, Waddell pointed out that the Randolph select board has approved land values that are $200 an acre more than The Conservation Fund will be paid for the 2,000-plus acre Tinker Brook parcel, soon to be added to the Gorham Town Forest. “Under these circumstances Gorham is forced to litigate for the ‘fair market’ value,” Waddell said.

Both towns would face substantial legal fees if they went the Bureau of Tax and Land Appeals appeal and court action route, he noted.

Gorham has already spent tax dollars on the issue. The select board contracted with professional appraiser George “Skip” Sansoucy of Lancaster for the April 1, 2019, “vacant land” valuation report on Gorham land owned in Randolph. His son, Austin Sansoucy, who did much of the legwork, went through all its findings at the meeting, and his dad also spoke on an open phone line.

Randolph has valued Gorham’s watershed acreage at $800 +/- an acre, whereas current use values would be in the $35 an acre range, Waddell explained. “Most of the privately-owned forest land in Gorham is valued at $35 an acre, including the Gorham Land Company,” Waddell explained.

Among the options discussed last week by those whose advice was sought included getting a clarification on HB 700, a bill which was passed last year and then signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu. This bill makes watersheds in adjacent towns — held by companies — eligible for “current use” valuation. The new law does not, however, explicitly state that it applies to municipalities. A state senator could still file a clarifying bill to eliminate any confusion.

Rep. Bill Hatch, a Democrat of Gorham, believes he would have no trouble finding a senator to sponsor such a bill. Or Gorham apparently could choose to incorporate its water department as a private company, thereby making the new law applicable.

Another option is that Gorham could challenge Randolph’s new valuation, completed under the state-mandated required every-five-year revaluation of propery. A suggestion was made that Gorham just not pay Randolph’s bill.

What was clear at last week’s all-hands-on-deck meeting in Gorham is that all stakeholders agreed to act in unison.

As part of a complex funding deal that has allowed Gorham to expand its town forest, Gorham’s watershed lands will soon be protected from development by a conservation easement. Randolph voters indicated their interest in having easements on Gorham-owned land within its borders by readily passing Article 24 at its 2006 Town Meeting.

Article 24 “authorizes the selectmen to negotiate the terms of, and enter into, an agreement with the town of Gorham concerning watershed protection land owned by the Town of Gorham and located in Randolph ... being approximately 2,747 acres in aggregate under which the Town of Randolph would receive a conservation easement, or a third-party right to enforce a conservation easement granted to another entity, and giving the Town of Randolph a legal right to prevent future development of that Gorham land, and further, as compensation for acquiring that right, the annual payment required from the Town of Gorham to the Town of Randolph on account of that land would be reduced, from the current amount of the payment-in-lieu of-taxes ... to an amount which would be based upon an assessment level, to be agreed upon, within the range of assessments levels for discretionary easement land.”

When this was passed in 2006, Randolph had already held title for nearly 5 years to its 10,000-acre-plus Randolph Community Forest, including 1,106 acres in Jefferson, all protected from development by a conservation easement. Randolph voters supported this warrant article because they were eager to further preserve the town’s forested and recreational base, even if it lowered Gorham’s PILT payments. As it turned out, the negotiations that followed did not lead to any change, but the authorization still stands.

Now Gorham is on the cusp of placing a conservation easement on all of its town forest, located in both Randolph and Gorham.

The select board has scheduled a public hearing on Jan. 27 on its proposed language designed to prohibit development and ensure Best Management practices. Its restrictive language was drafted by both residents and stakeholders, including Sally Manikian of TCF.

The agenda for today’s meeting, posted on the Gorham website, indicates that if any action is taken in the nonpublic session, it will be announced in public under “New Business.”

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