What May a Conservation Commission Do?

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"  or natural resource inventory 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  municipally-owned parcel; for use, such as a trail system, involving several parcels; for the acquisition of a locally outstanding natural feature; or for regulation of development to protect natural resources such as steep slopes or wetlands ordinances.

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 or town conservation land. Recommendations may involve comments on the municipal master plan or 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.

3. "... may advertise, prepare, print and distribute books, maps, charts, plans, and pamphlets ... necessary for its work."

Informing the public about the importance of protecting natural areas for public benefit is vital to a conservation commission's success and to gain public support for a conservation proposal. If residents do not understand the need for a proposed action, often they will not support it. New Hampshire municipal conservation commissions must engage in public outreach and education in the form of written material, programs and presentations, and outdoor events and hikes to help gain support for initiatives. 

Other Powers

Several other statutes give conservation commissions additional powers. These may increase the scope and influence of a commission's activities.

Town Forests

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 a vote of town meeting or city council, a conservation commission may manage the town or city forest.

Dredge and Fill in Wetlands

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 the 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. Prime wetlands are designated because they are areas of significant value worthy of extra protection under NH State Law “…because of their size, unspoiled character, fragile condition, or other relevant factors, make them of substantial significance.”

Prime wetland designation allows for more local control and a complete review of dredge and fill permit applications so that municipalities can ensure the best level of protection for these unique wetland resources.

Sand and Gravel Excavations

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 considers the commission's comments and prepare written findings if a decision differs from commission recommendations.


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