Editorial: What next for conservation land?
The 114 acres of city-owned conservation land behind the post office on Loudon Road is Concord’s field of dreams. No other parcel is potentially as important to the future of the city’s downtown, which has thrived despite being cut off from the Merrimack River but could be so much more. Interstate 93 may never be moved so Concord can reconnect with the river, and the once dreamed-of pedestrian bridge connecting downtown with the eastern bank may never be built. But nothing that happens to the property should foreclose on those possibilities.
A subcommittee of Concord’s city council will continue meeting for at least a few more weeks before issuing its recommendation for the property, which for decades has consisted largely of cornfields. They are the closest cornfields to a state capital in the nation. A bird on a west-facing stalk sees the State House’s gold dome. In spring, when the fields are fertilized by the farmers who lease them, the nose-wrinkling aroma hangs over the capitol, the odor of agriculture and of laws being made.
A number of proposed uses are being considered. The land floods often, so possibilities are limited. No one expects, or should, that the property will become home to buildings and parking lots. The existing ones near the river are a planning mistake that shouldn’t be repeated. Some councilors and conservation committee members favor keeping the land in agriculture and support a conservation easement that, given the scarcity of river bottom land and richness of its soil, would do so in perpetuity.
The flat land is also being considered for athletic fields. Others see the parcel as a way for Concord to meet its need for a large, grassy gathering place suitable for holding fairs, concerts and other public events served by temporary structures. In a sense, that’s in keeping with the land’s history. The site served as a muster field where New Hampshire soldiers trained before heading south to war.
A farm road, part of the nascent Merrimack River Greenway Trail, skirts the riverbank. In places, the cornrows come within feet of the river. Corn is a fertilizer-intensive crop that has a host of predators. A sign in a kiosk built as an Eagle Scout project warns that the trails on the property may be closed at times to allow farmers to harvest or apply pesticides. It would be best, we think, to keep the bulk of the land in agriculture and help support the city’s last dairy farm, which leases much of the land. But it would also be good to move the corn farther from the river. That would reduce the potential for runoff into the Merrimack and provide space for parkland, fairgrounds and the like.
A few years ago, the council declined to enter into a conservation easement that would be held by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests because it felt that its requirements were too stringent to allow the site’s use to change if doing so was in the best interest of the city. A subsequent proposal by the society which would allow for public events, trails and a small parking area was a big improvement. It goes without saying that permeable pavers should be mandatory for any parking areas.
Playing fields, which are arguably even more intensively managed with fertilizers and herbicides than an agricultural operation, are not the best use of the land, nor, given New Hampshire’s declining population of school-age children, are they sorely needed. And unlike parks, they do not invite casual use by the public and sit idle much of the time.
The city council showed great foresight when it purchased the fields. It should be equally forward-looking about their future.