WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday decided to assign the town's right of first refusal on a 10-acre parcel in South Williamstown.
The vote, which is contingent on ironing out an 11th-hour "wrinkle," closed a conversation that began in July over a parcel currently farmed by Sweet Brook Farm.
The board decided, 4-1, to assign the town's right to Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, which hopes to purchase the Oblong Road property for the same $745,000 price that owner Beth Phelps is offered by a developer who wants to acquire the site for residential development.
The land has been conserved under the commonwealth's Chapter 61 program since the 1980s. Under that program, landowners are taxed at a significantly lower rate on acreage they keep open. If an owner wants to take the land out of Chapter 61, as the $745,000 purchase and sales agreement proposes, the owner pays back some of the taxes it would have during the conservation period, and the town has the right to buy the land itself to keep it from being developed.
Or the town can assign that right to a qualified non-profit, which is what Rural Lands requested earlier this year.
The town had a 120-day period to make a decision that was set to expire in mid January, but the board told WRLF that it wanted to make a decision at its late November meeting and asked the non-profit to be prepared to commit to work toward closing the deal at the Nov. 28 meeting.
The president of the foundation's board Monday told the Select Board that WRLF is well on its way to raising the needed funds and committed to closing on the property in the spring.
"I'm feeling comfortable we'll hit half a million in fund-raising right now," Greg Islan told the Select Board. "People are very interested, committed to doing this."
Islan said that as of Monday, the foundation had a little more than $438,000 in donations and pledges from donors and that the non-profit plans to borrow some portion of the $745,000 purchase price.
Part of its financing plan involves seeking state and/or federal grant money, Islan said, and that is where there could be a potential hitch to the transfer of rights from the town.
"When we were talking to — I can't remember if it was the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources or the federal government people — they basically gave us a couple of hints of things that can't be in the assignment from the town because it would negate the possibility of us getting federal or state money," Islan said.
"If the town says they are assigning it to be in conservation, then it's technically already in conservation, and we can't go to state or federal sources to put it in conservation."
Select Board Chair Hugh Daley said he had discussed the question with town counsel.
"This adds a wrinkle because, technically, [the land] is in conservation now," he said.
And the town could not, hypothetically, assign its right of first refusal to a developer who wanted to build on the property.
"We can only assign it to a land conservation company," Daley said. "This is a pretty serious wrinkle at the last second."
The board's ultimate vote to assign the rights was conditioned on a successful negotiation between the town and Rural Lands on language in the assignment that satisfies both sides.
The lone dissenting vote in that vote was cast by Jane Patton, who prefaced her comments Monday by reiterating that she supports agriculture and the protection of open space in the town. But Patton repeatedly said she did not agree with the process that led to the decision.
"I don't like the process and the presumption that an asset like this is dealt with a certain way without asking robust, respectful questions," Patton said.
She noted that a significant percentage of the town's land already is conserved under one program or another — as much as 36 percent by one count, though Patton said she was told the number was 40 percent.
"We have a lot of difficulty finding space in town for any one of a number of much-needed issues," Patton said. "To just expect the Select Board back in June to say, 'Hey, whatever,' the cart was before the horse.
"We are painting ourselves into a corner, and I have to ask these questions. … I should be able to ask the questions without people thinking I'm anti-anything."
Patton raised a different issue on Monday after Islan detailed Rural Lands' efforts to date to raise money for the land acquisition.
The non-profit has focused on soliciting donations and pledges from the Oblong Road neighborhood, Islan said, saying his own door-knocking efforts have allowed him to engage with people he had never met.
"It's been fun," Islan said. "I've met fun, interesting people. A couple, right from the start, said they had trouble with Rural Lands. But then they sent commitments [to support the purchase]. They realize it's a special property."
Patton asked why the non-profit's board only was asking people who live near the parcel in question.
"The elephant in the room is you're getting money from Oblong Road residents, it benefits Oblong Road residents … I'd feel better about it benefiting everybody if we'd talked to more than just Oblong Road residents," Patton said.
Islan said originally the WRLF talked about a broader fund-raising effort. But the non-profit has other priorities that likely will entail a larger, townwide campaign. Specifically, WRLF plans to undergo a strategic planning process early next year that could lead to a capital campaign that would appeal to the same townwide audience Patton was suggesting.
He acknowledged that Patton's point was a "fair question" though, and said the non-profit likely would cast a wider net for support following the hoped-for successful Select Board vote on Monday.
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