Gully Hill land: Agriculture or athletic fields?

  • A rendering of the Gully Hill parcel in Concord sits on a table at the Gully Hill Conservation Easement committee meeting Tuesday. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • Dairy farmer Rob Morrill, of Penacook, examines a map of the Gully Hill parcel of land in Concord with his wife, Sherri, and his son, Andy. The family is hoping that the city's conservation commission will allow them to lease and farm 69 acres of the land, which has been in agricultural use for decades. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Farmland, athletic fields, a festival space or an ecological park? The Gully Hill Conservation Easement Committee is weighing all of its options as it decides the fate of one Concord parcel of land.

“I would say at least probably it needs to be used for open space,” Concord Conservation Committee vice chairman James Owers said.

He added that given the 114 acres acquired using conservation commission funds, the city is legally obligated to stay within certain uses.

But what “open space” really means was up for debate Tuesday night. Some Gully Hill committee members thought the land off Loudon Road along the Merrimack River should be reserved for agriculture and “passive recreation” like hiking, skiing, walking and bird watching. Others proposed more active recreational use, like another White Park.

The 69 acres of fields, bordered by wetlands and wooded areas, have long been in agricultural production and, in the meantime, created wildlife habitat. They stayed that way as the city purchased the land between 2007 and 2010.

In 2013, Mayor Jim Bouley first formed the Gully Hill committee to decide whether the land should be put under conservation easement. After four meetings, however, the committee decided to disband as long as the land was under agricultural lease.

Bouley recently reassembled the committee after farmer Keith Richard of Pembroke announced that he would be cutting his lease short. It originally lasted through 2019.

At the first meeting of the re-formed committee, city councilors Mark Coen and Dan St. Hilaire proposed potentially changing things up.

“We really got one heck of a value from what we paid for that property,” Coen said. “Can it be used for multiple uses and not harm the intent?”

He said he has heard some people ask, wouldn’t the land make for great athletic fields?

St. Hilaire agreed that athletic fields, complete with a parking lot and some permanent bathrooms, would be ideal. He also re-upped an earlier suggestion from the 2013 meetings about creating a festival space large enough for the League of N.H. Craftsmen annual fair.

“If you view White Park as I do as an open space, I think it furthers the mission of the (city) council and the conservation commission,” St. Hilaire said.

Others in the room vehemently disagreed. Acting city planner Heather Shank said parks with athletic fields are poor land management models.

“Parks, the way we think of them, are absolutely destructive to fertile soils,” she said. Shank did suggest there might be a new, innovative way to use the land for both recreation and conservation: ecological parks.

Committee member Jennifer Kretovic said she felt the land should be preserved for what it was: some of the little fertile agricultural soil left in Concord.

“We have a state of dwindling agriculture,” she said. “We all have to eat; we have to have farms.”

Alan Bartlett, a Concord dairy farmer who sold the city a portion of land that now makes up the Gully Hill parcel, said he did so with the intent of it being used for agricultural purposes.

“To think you could change the use after you purchased it for that reason – it wouldn’t be right,” Bartlett said.

The conservation committee told the Gully Hill committee that it needed to know what the city wanted to do, since it already has two farming groups interested in leasing the land: Morrill Dairy Farm and the Russell Foundation.

One would grow crops for its cattle; the other would feature organic gardens tended by immigrant residents.

The committee expects to make a recommendation at its Jan. 24 meeting.