In December 2009, the Town of New Castle and Southeast Land Trust completed the purchase and protection of three scenic and much loved islands in the back channel of the Piscataqua River, collectively known as the Back Channel Islands. Thanks to an outpouring of support from New Castle residents and generous private donations, the Town now owns the Back Channel Islands, subject to a conservation easement held by the land trust.
Located off of the end of Laurel Lane and Bosun’s Hill, the Back Channel Islands consist of Mill Island, Long Rock Island and Birch Island. The Land Trust and Town had first sought to conserve the island in 2005 when the New Castle Open Space Committee identified them as a top priority for open space conservation due to their scenic value, wildlife habitat, and recreational use. The highly scenic islands are visible from Route 1B and beloved by generations of New Castle youth for swimming and picnicking.
The undeveloped islands offer habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including terns, deer, blue heron, kingfishers and other wildlife. Huckleberry bushes, white pine and black oak populate the islands. An inventory by ecologist Dan Sperduto identified an exemplary natural community, Coastal Rocky Headlands, on the islands and two plant species of concern. Finally, the three islands include a representative example of a historic tidal mill dam which supported Ritson’s Grist Mill (no longer present). However, the remnants of these remarkable tidal dams are still visible at low tide.
Earnest negotiations to acquire the property began in the fall of 2008 as they were offered on the open market. After hiring a licensed, certified appraiser to appraise the islands, the land trust offered to buy them for their appraised value. “At that time, we were unable to come to agreement on the purchase price and however difficult it was, we had to walk away from the opportunity” explains Brian Hart, Executive Director.
In this case, patience paid off. With the recession in 2009, the asking price for the islands and an associated house on New Castle dropped, and by summer, was near the appraised value. The land trust contacted the realtor and reached agreement to acquire the islands for $160,000, their appraised value.
That fall the New Castle Open Space Committee proposed the use of $150,000 of the Town’s open space bond to acquire the islands. While Selectmen were hosting public hearings on the proposed purchase, two petitions were filed by voters. The first petition requested that the proposed purchase be voted on at the May 2010 Town Meeting. The second petition requested that the purchase be voted on at a Special Town Meeting to be scheduled as soon as possible as the proposed purchase was to close by December 31, 2009. In response, Selectmen scheduled a Special Town Meeting for Tuesday, December 1.
When asked about the Special Town Meeting and its impact on the effort to acquire the Back Chanenl Islands, Linda Ball, Chair of the New Castle Open Space Committee, explained “It was beautiful to watch the people's love of these islands ignite a determination to save them.”
More than 200 residents attended the Special Town Meeting, and overwhelmingly voted to authorize the expenditure and purchase. With the Town commitment in hand, local volunteers raced to raise the remaining $37,000 in private funding needed to protect the islands before the end of December. More than 70 area families contributed the necessary private funding, a demonstration of the Back Channel Islands importance.
“We are grateful for the tremendous, generous support of New Castle residents, who voted to expend their tax dollars and who made individual gifts to conserve these islands,” explains Hart. “Because of their commitment, these islands will be protected and enjoyed by generations to come.”
The Back Channel Islands will remain undeveloped in their natural state under the stewardship of the New Castle Conservation Commission. The Southeast Land Trust, as the easement holder, is responsible for annually monitoring the property to ensure its use remains consistent with the goals of the conservation easement.
“Now in 2010 and beyond, every citizen in New Castle can look at the islands and know that they are ours to appreciate and enjoy in their natural state forever!” exclaims Ball.