A Phone Call to Fairbanks

Calling Alaska from Apple Hill

In June of 2003, I co-led an Antioch University New England field studies trip to Alaska. Midway through our itinerary, we were staying at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. I vividly remember receiving a phone call around midnight while watching students play frisbee, with plenty of light for the occasion.

A map of the propsed subdivision at Apple Hill.

A map of the proposed subdivision at Apple Hill.
Click the image for a larger view.

It was a rather frantic call from Michael Iselin, a Harris Center easement donor, who with his wife Alouette and mother Kia had protected half of the shoreline of Center Pond in Nelson. In a very excited voice, Michael explained that a developer had just purchased a large tract of land along Lead Mine Road, abutting the parcel where the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music is located. Furthermore, the purchase came with a 16 house-lot development plan nearly ready to take to the planning board.

Michael was sure this would be detrimental to Apple Hill and to the town as a whole. “What can be done to stop it?” he asked. First, I blurted out, “Michael, I’m in Fairbanks, Alaska!” Then I said I’d give it some thought.

A Partnership with the Nelson Conservation Commission

As soon as I got back, I hastily arranged a meeting with Bud French and Bert Wingerson of the Nelson Conservation Commission and a couple of other concerned townspeople. Together, we discussed how we might minimize the financial and environmental impact of development on the 225 acres in question, with its approximately 2,000 feet of road frontage. The outcome of the meeting was a strategy and the formation of a close partnership between the Harris Center and the Nelson Conservation Commission.

A map of the proposed "conservation subdivision" plan for the Apple Hill property.

A map of the revised “conservation subdivision” plan.

Given our uncertain financial resources and the developer’s expectations, we decided that our best hope was to propose that he sell us a conservation easement — one that would still allow four single-family houses to be built along the road, but not in a 172-acre conservation zone protecting the ridgeline above the road and, beyond that, the biologically diverse Black Brook Swamp and stream valley. What would such an easement cost, and would the developer agree to such a deal?

For this question we enlisted the help of a local real estate appraiser and an attorney, who had worked with the developer on other legal matters and so could convey to him our proposal and the rationale behind it.

A “Win-Win” Situation

The way we saw it, it was a “win-win” for both buyer and seller. The developer would avoid a lengthy and potentially expensive battle with the town (such as the previous landowner had experienced), as well as the costs of building roads and other infrastructure that he would have incurred in creating a 16-lot subdivision. The town, in turn, was able to protect a large parcel of conservation significance.

We must have been convincing, because he accepted our offer!

But we weren’t out of the woods yet. We still had to raise the purchase price of the easement. Fortunately for all, the Conservation Commission had just received a bequest named the Partridge Fund, a portion of which could be put toward this project. Apple Hill stepped up with a contribution and pledged to protect their abutting 48 acres by conservation easement, and a very generous anonymous donor offered to match additional donations. To close the deal within the agreed-upon time, we borrowed from our Spoonwood Fund. By the end of 2004, we had received all the donations needed to replenish the fund and gave a cheer for the partnership’s success!

–Meade Cadot