Sunday, May 19, 2013
Group races to save Sutton landscape
SUTTON — There is hardly a more classic rural New England landscape than in Sutton.
Rolling hills unfold in a patchwork of fields and stone walls. Weathered barns stand against the wind. Orchards, dairy and horse farms dot knolls sloping to sparkling ponds.
That view — and the town’s cultural heritage — is changing, as open space succumbs to development.
Selectman Michael A. Chizy, who serves as board chairman, has lived in town almost 60 years.
“Where cornfields used to be, now there’s houses,” he said.
Another quintessential parcel, the 100-acre Beaton Farm Property that was once part of historic Waters Farm, overlooking Manchaug Pond, may be the next to be developed.
The current owner, who has received property tax benefits for 73 acres on the site under the state Chapter 61A program for agricultural land, plans to sell the property. Under state law, when land comes out of agricultural, forestry or recreation space protection, the town has the right of first refusal to buy the land.
Selectmen agreed April 16 that the town was not in a position to purchase the parcel, but assigned the nonprofit Manchaug Pond Foundation to act on its behalf to try to raise $1.32 million by July 16, the deadline set by law, to buy the 73 acres.
“Taxes have gone up,” Mr. Chizy said. “People can only afford so much. I don’t think the town would purchase it (if money couldn’t be raised privately).”
The College of the Holy Cross has submitted a $1.9 million proposal to purchase the full 100 acres, including 73 acres under Chapter 61A, plus roughly 26 acres along the pond in Douglas, on which to build a 30,000-square-foot retreat center.
Ellen M. Ryder, director of public affairs for Holy Cross, said, “It is so beautiful. It’s what attracted us to it in the first place.”
She said that retreat and contemplation are an integral part of a faith-based education. The college used to hold one-day or overnight retreats, often conducted in silence, at a facility in Narragansett, R.I., but that site was no longer available. Since the 1980s, students and staff have had to travel at least an hour to other locations.
Phyllis M. Charpentier, corresponding secretary for the Manchaug Pond Foundation, said the group has nothing against the college.
But she wants to preserve the scenic open space that is enjoyed by visitors from all over, the historic quarry in the woods that once supplied Blackstone Valley mills with stone, the pristine trout ponds and brooks that run through the property to 875 feet of shoreline on Manchaug Pond, and the working stables that house 19 miniature horses.
“If we do not succeed, everything will be sold: the house, the barn, 26 acres abutting the pond and the fields,” Ms. Charpentier said. “We’re looking to keep it undeveloped so the streams feeding Manchaug Pond stay as they are now. It’s the last quiet cove.”
Marty Jo Henry, Manchaug Pond Foundation’s first vice president, said the land was a priority habitat for endangered species and served as a wildlife corridor linking Sutton State Forest and Douglas State Forest. She has photographed bald eagles, osprey and heron soaring overhead there.
“It’s a big stopping point for migrating ducks heading up to Canada,” Ms. Henry said.
The stone-wall-bordered overlook at the top of the fields, with a panoramic vista of the 380-acre Manchaug Pond below, provides an ideal viewing spot for bird watchers and others, including wedding couples who have portraits taken there.
That “viewshed” was highlighted a dozen years ago in the master plan for Waters Farm, a living-history farm preserved to portray 19th-century agrarian life. The Waters homestead, which was built in 1757 by Stephen Waters and is on the National Register of Historic Places, is across the road from Beaton Farm and looks out onto the fields and hillside to Manchaug Pond.
National Park Service Ranger Chuck Arning said, “You’d like to see the way it might have been in the 1800s.”
He cited passages from the Waters Farm master plan: “This amazing view is a powerful experience for the first-time visitor because it is so unexpected and so dramatic. The view is evocative of how the land may have looked more than 250 years ago — regardless of its actual appearance. The momentary sensation of being in another time anchors Waters Farm in the mind of the visitor as an important place, a place where you can feel connected to the past through the power of this unique setting and experience. Preservation of views should be a primary goal.”
But preservation takes money, time and a lot of hard work.
“The problem is, we need such a large amount of money in such a short time,” said Andrew J. Mosher, Manchaug Pond Foundation treasurer.
“The situation the foundation finds itself in, scrambling to pull together funds to purchase open space before it is sold for development, isn’t uncommon, according to Rob Warren, Massachusetts director of protection and policy for The Nature Conservancy.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that lands that are enrolled in Chapter 61 programs are not permanently protected lands. That’s at the discretion of the landowner,” he said.
Mr. Warren said that because these properties typically become available on short notice, many land trusts work with landowners ahead of time to get them thinking about placing their property in permanent protection, through conservation restrictions, donation or sale to a conservation organization.
Towns that have adopted the Community Preservation Act, which Sutton has not, may be in a better financial position to acquire open space. The Community Preservation Act creates local funds, through a surcharge of up to 3 percent on real estate levies, for preserving open space and historic sites, promoting affordable housing and developing outdoor recreation facilities.
Open space committees can also plan strategically for land acquisition.
“Any of that sort of foresight is helpful, Mr. Warren said. “Having planning in place ahead of time helps a community respond. The ‘white knight’ is a true rarity,” he said, referring to a donor who swoops in to help buy land.
He added that towns should be aware of the economic benefits of protecting land, which costs far less over time than providing services for developed parcels, despite the additional tax revenue.
Contact Susan Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SusanSpencerTG.