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Manchester looks at ways to unload thousands of acres in Auburn

MANCHESTER - The Water Works department is considering disposing of thousands of acres of lakeside land in order to reduce an annual tax bill to Auburn that is approaching $1 million.

The department has retained a lawyer to explore how the nearly 4,000 acres it owns on the Auburn side of Lake Massabesic can be declared surplus and designated a permanent conservation easement, Water Works Director Thomas Bowen told an aldermanic committee Monday.

It's the latest attempt by the agency to reduce its tax burden to Auburn. Two years ago, the state Supreme Court sided with Auburn in determining that Manchester couldn't qualify for tax breaks based on a temporary conservation easement on the land. Last year, a bill that would have allowed Manchester to seek a lower assessment based on the land's use as open space stalled in the Legislature.

'We can't really think of another option that would allow us to have the land valued at what it really is - it's conservation,' Bowen told the Committee on Lands and Buildings Monday, referring to the prospect of declaring the land surplus and placing it into a conservation easement.

Auburn has resisted the city's efforts to change the status of the land, which the town relies on as a significant source of revenue.

The city owns the land around Lake Massabesic as a buffer to protect its water supply. Bowen said in pursuing the conservation easement, the agency needed to be careful of 'unintended consequences.'

Such a move could affect the city's ability to draw water from the lake and control runoff into it, he said.

Bowen called the agency's talks with a lawyer specializing in conservation easements 'very preliminary.'

Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur expressed support for the latest effort to change the tax status of the land. 'It seems like a no-brainer,' he said. 'This year it's a $800,000 bill. Next year it could be $900,000 or more.'

Bowen is expected to report back to the committee at a later date.

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