What new conservation commission members should know
There's a lot to know when you first join a conservation commission–NHACC is here to help.
A conservation commission, according to state law (RSA 36-A- the law which governs conservation commissions in NH), is charged with identifying and protecting the natural resources in the municipality. A commission is the only local body specifically charged with protecting natural resources; it provides a focal point within municipal government for environmental concerns.
Protecting natural resources is a broad mandate/big task. To accomplish projects and goals, it is important for commissions to work with other boards and state agencies. A conservation commission is an advisory body and as such, may offer recommendations and comments to the select board, the planning board and NH Department of Environmental Services. Reviewing and commenting on state wetlands permit applications is one of the tasks commissions may take on. It is the only local board authorized to “intervene” or request more time, to review applications submitted to NH DES Wetland Bureau.
The state enabling legislation, RSA 36-A, directs conservation commissions to keep an ‘index’ of all open space…ecological areas… and other wetlands. This charge has become known as the natural resource inventory. It is critical for municipalities to have a natural resource inventory to identify areas with significant conservation values that should be protected. This information should be used to educate the public and inform town decision makers. Other requirements for conservation commission include coordinating with “…unofficial bodies organized for similar purposes …” Commissions in NH often work with lake associations, environmental education centers, and land trusts to ensure protection of local natural resources.
A conservation commission is a public body that must keep accurate meeting minutes that comply with RSA 91-A, Right-To-Know, which requires meetings open to the public, meeting notices posted, and timely availability of minutes. Need a little guidance on taking minutes? See the NH Municipal Association's article about taking minutes.
Stay organized and transparent
Conservation commissions are not considered a “local land use board”, and are not governed by RSA 676:1, therefore bylaws are not a necessary document. Many commissions choose to construct bylaws or other procedural guidelines in order to keep operations running smoothly. To prevent confusion with local land use boards the best practice is to use the term operational guidelines or commission procedures instead of ‘bylaws’.
Tips on Presenting a warrant article at town meeting
It can helpful to provide information through a public outreach campaign long before town meeting when submitting a warrant article for town vote. Review your proposals with the select board and other town decision makers so that no one is surprised to learn of a warrant article just before a vote. Explain what you are doing and how it will benefit the town. If possible, outline the tax implications and how the money will be spent. Emphasize the value of natural areas from an economic viewpoint and list data that supports your warrant article including town surveys, the master plan or regional plans.
Town meetings and City Council meetings can be stressful, but these meetings can also be an opportunity to share your accomplishments and educate the community. Working with other boards in your town can take time, but it allows you to understand where there are opportunities to work together. Much of what a conservation commission does involves dealing with people, either in groups or as individuals. Respect that others have different goals and try to find common ground. Consider that boards have processes that they must follow according to law.
How to appropriate Conservation Funds
RSA 36-A:5, I, authorizes a municipality to appropriate funds for a conservation commission “for the purposes of this chapter without further approval of the town meeting.”
Money may be appropriated by vote of town meeting or city council to a commission for operating expenses, capital expenditures, the conservation fund, or the forest management fund. The town or city treasurer has custody of all commission funds. When a local legislative body votes to establish a conservation commission, it may also appropriate operating expenses.
The annual conservation commission operating budget, like most municipal funds, is “lapsing” meaning any funds remaining at the end of the year are returned to the town’s general fund, unless the town votes to appropriate the funds elsewhere. Money in the conservation commission’s operating budget can be used for any conservation purpose defined in the RSA 36-A.
The most common way a conservation commission holds money from various income sources is through a municipal finance account called the Conservation Fund. The local legislative body must vote to create a conservation fund and to place unexpended appropriations therein. See NH Municipal Conservation Fund Guidebook for more information.
NHACC has talking points to help you design your campaign to support a Land Use Change Tax allocation or defend your existing allocation.