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In addition to the statutory duties, a conservation commission is authorized by RSA 36-A to engage in the following optional activities:
1. "... may recommend ... a program for the protection, development or better utilization of all ... areas [in the index] ..."
Once the required "index" is prepared, a conservation commission may prepare plans and recommendations for appropriate use of the areas identified and urge their adoption or implementation by the appropriate body. Plans and recommendations can vary considerably in scope. A proposal might be for use of a single municipally owned parcel; for a use, such as a trail system, involving several parcels; for acquisition of a locally outstanding natural feature; or for regulation of development to protect natural resources such as steep slopes or wetlands.
If a conservation commission has identified a town-owned parcel suitable for a town forest, its recommendation would be in the form of a warrant article designating the parcel as town forest. Recommendations may involve comments on the municipal master plan or, at the request of the planning board or master plan committee, may include preparing the open space or conservation section of the master plan. If the master plan adequately addresses areas of concern, a commission may help the planning board draft an ordinance to implement the recommendations in the plan.
2. "... may receive gifts of money and property, both real and personal, in the name of the city or town, subject to the approval of the local governing body, such gifts to be managed and controlled by the commission ..."
"... may acquire in the name of the town or city, subject to the approval of the local governing body, ... the fee in such land or water rights, or any lesser interest ... and shall manage and control the same, but the city or town or commission shall not have the right to condemn property for these purposes."
The intent of the legislature was to allow conservation commissions to accept donations and to acquire land, either outright or through easements, in the name of the town or city. In either case, the municipality becomes the owner of the property or easement; a conservation commission may not "own" property.
This authority can be useful in acquiring property, particularly when there is an established conservation fund with sufficient money in it to do so. Time is often of the essence when land becomes available. In towns, use of this power can avoid waiting for town meeting approval to accept or purchase property. It is less important in cities: city councils meet regularly and can accept donations and authorize acquisitions. If a city commission has a conservation fund, it can avoid the need to appropriate funds outside the regular budget process for land purchases.
Although a commission with the approval of the selectmen may acquire land, neither the commission nor the selectmen may dispose of Town Forest or conservation land without town meeting approval (RSA 31-3 and RSA 41-14-a).
3. "... may advertise, prepare, print and distribute books, maps, charts, plans and pamphlets ... necessary for its work."
Informing the public about the nature of and reasons for a particular proposal of a conservation commission is as vital to its success as the initial research and thought behind the proposal. If residents do not understand the need for a proposed action, often they will not support it. Few New Hampshire municipalities are small enough for conservation commissioners to persuade residents individually of the wisdom of a particular approach; most commissions must rely, at least in part, on written material.
Several other statutes give conservation commissions additional powers. These may increase the scope and influence of a commission's activities.
The statute enabling local designation and management of town and city forests, RSA 31:110, RSA 31:111, RSA 31:112, and RSA 31:113, provides two options for municipal forest managers: a forestry committee created for that purpose, or, by vote of town meeting or city council, a conservation commission may manage the town or city forest.
The NH statute governing Fill and Dredge in Wetlands, RSA 482-A, allows a conservation commission to request time to investigate an application for a dredge and fill permit filed with the NH DES Wetlands Bureau. If a commission makes this request within 14 days of the date the application is signed by the town or city clerk, the Bureau must delay action on that application until a report is received from the conservation commission or until 40 days from the date of the clerk's signature, whichever comes first. The conservation commission is the ONLY municipal body with authority to "intervene" (request this delay).
The conservation commission may also prepare the report and maps for the local designation of prime wetlands under RSA 482-A.
Unlike many NH statutes that allow a municipality to regulate an activity if it chooses to do so, RSA 155-E (Local Regulation Excavations) requires municipalities to regulate sand and gravel excavations by issuing permits. The planning board is responsible for administering this permit system unless the municipality votes to assign the responsibility to the zoning board of adjustment or the selectmen.
RSA 155-E:3 (Application for Permit) requires an applicant for an excavation permit to send a copy of the application to the conservation commission. This provides an opportunity for a commission to make comments and recommendations on proposed excavation and restoration plans. A commission should see to it that it does in fact receive copies of applications and that its comments are considered in regulatory decisions. Local regulations should specify that the regulator consider the commission's comments and prepare written findings if a decision differs from commission recommendations.