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Walpole golf course land action is challenged

Union Leader Correspondent

January 30. 2014 9:14PM

WALPOLE — The Select Board has responded to a petition from a resident challenging the board’s plan to place a conservation easement on the Hooper Golf Course land before attempting to sell it.

The resident, Stephen Varone, filed the petition in the 8th Circuit Court Probate Division in Keene Jan. 15 against the Select Board’s request to the Probate Court for permission to sell the land.

The golf course land was left to the town by George L. Hooper, who willed money and his mansion and surrounding farmland on Prospect Hill to the town when he died in 1916 for the express purpose of being used to further the education of Walpole children in vocational agriculture.

The land could be used for the agricultural education or to generate money for the program.

Hooper left about 125 acres, about 65 of which became a golf course in the 1920s. The rest of the land is used for education.

Out of concern the land would be developed if sold, the Select Board is working with Keene-based Monadnock Conservancy to place a conservation easement on the land before it is sold, but first needs permission to sell the land because it is part of the George L. Hooper Trust and secondly to place restrictions on the land.

In his petition Varone says Select Boards over the decades have mismanaged the property and the current board now intends to sell it for less than it is worth in a down market.

According to the George L. Hooper Trust, if at some point the town wishes to “relinquish the property the real estate here by conveyed shall be sold by the town of Walpole by the best terms which can be obtained.”

“The language is pretty clear,” Varone said.

Varone said he would not like to see the land developed either, but placing limitations of possible uses of the land will reduce the amount a buyer is willing to pay for it. He added that a golf course is most likely not the highest and best use of the land since the town has been subsidizing the golf course for decades.

“We’re trying to keep a golf course alive that isn’t economically viable without a tax exemption,” Varone said.

By attempting to keep the land a golf course, the Select Board is pitting the interests of golfers against the children that are benefiting from the program, he said.

“It may not be their intent, but it the result. The Trust has less money to deal with,” he said.

The Select Board estimates the land is worth about $1.2 million, but it could sell for more if a developer sees potential profit in the property, Varone said.

Because it is in the rural district, uses would be limited to housing, he said, or a use similar to the golf course.

“It’s not zoned for business. It’s not going to end up with a Walmart there,” Varone said.

The board’s attorney Jeremy Hockensmith did answer the petition with a filing Wednesday saying that Varone has no standing in the matter.

Select Board Chairwoman Jamie Teague would not comment Thursday, referring questions to what the board has filed in the Probate Court and their attorney’s response.

Varone said he believes that as a resident of the town he is a beneficiary of the Trust and therefore has standing. His three children benefited from the educational programs and he has three grandchildren that are going to benefit from the program in the future.

Besides, if the Select Board, and not the residents, are the beneficiaries of the Trust then the Select Board is both the Trustees of the Trust and the beneficiary.

How can Select Board members answer to the concerns of their constitutes and manage the Trust to the founders wishes, Varone asks.

“We have an obligation to follow his conditions. I understand he’s been dead for 90 years, but we need to follow his conditions,” Varone said.

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