MPF effort “most incredible outdoors story of 2013”

Article on Manchaug Pond Foundation:  December 31, 2013 Worcester Telegram

Outdoors: Saving of Beaton Farm in Sutton offers inspiration of what’s possible

Mark Blazis Outdoors

  For me, the most incredible outdoors story of 2013 was the improbable saving of Beaton Farm.

Phyllis Charpentier, secretary of the Manchaug Pond Foundation, president David Schmidt, and treasurer Andrew Mosher proved to be the tireless inspiration behind the spectacular wild land’s preservation. Charpentier shared for the first time last week the unlikely sequence of events and “the rest of the story” that led to its miraculous, last-minute rescue from the bulldozer.

With no local board or commission, state agency, land trust or other conservation group willing or able to save the farm, the town of Sutton left it up to the Manchaug Pond Foundation to try to raise the needed $1.925 million in just 90 days. Buoyed by its recent victory after a six-year fight to save the dam, which preserves beautiful 380-acre Manchaug Pond, the foundation, with naïve optimism, hoped to save the farm, too.

During the long dam battle, the foundation strengthened itself, learned how to fight, broadened its scope from a lake association to a nonprofit and forged a strong relationship with Sutton’s town leadership, which proved critically important.

Charpentier said Holy Cross had a purchase-and-sales agreement in place that would have developed and changed forever the spectacular hillside of Manchaug Pond’s west cove. The plan was to secure the 100-plus acres, end current agricultural use, demolish the existing stable and construct a two-story, 60-bed facility with dining hall, conference rooms and chapel. Whatever was wild would have been at best park-like. The stage was set for a David-against-Goliath contest.

Charpentier recalls the Feb. 11 meeting of the Sutton Planning Board:

“Where Holy Cross architects, lawyers and a priest impressively presented plans for the property. The stable tenant and neighboring residents countered with concerns over the loss of the agricultural use and spectacular views, as well as increased traffic problems for the tiny neighborhood.”

The battle might well have ended that night. But the Sutton Planning Board unanimously recommended to the Board of Selectman the preservation of this Chapter 61 A land if alternate funding for its purchase could be found. So began the emotional roller coaster of envisioned success and the reality of funding failure.

Despite great effort, the nearly $2 million needed couldn’t be raised. On March 12, the town administrator was going to have to recommend that the selectmen go with the Holy Cross proposal.

For Charpentier, it was figuratively the bottom of the ninth, two out, two strikes. Fans were leaving, and the stadium lights were dimming. But the foundation persisted, inserting itself with greater involvement and asking for more time to raise funds. At the March 16 public hearing, the Board of Selectmen voted to give the foundation the right to purchase if it succeeded, a shocking reprieve.

I sometimes wonder about fate. When by total chance I learned about the Beaton Farm’s imminent demise, I had just come from viewing development in my town of Grafton. I was incensed by the bulldozing of a beautiful wild parcel where I used to hunt and bird-watch. Feeling Sutton’s pain, I passionately wrote a column, hoping to find donors to save the farm. The power of the pen never ceases to amaze me.

Charpentier recalls the amazing morning after the May 14 column appeared: “The story resulted in a frenzy of calls from potential donors as far away as California! Ted Williams of the Grafton Land Trust & Norcross Foundation, and Lois Fay of Common Ground added their advice and encouragement. And then came the winning home run, hit by a ‘white knight,’ who came out of nowhere. Despite no previous knowledge of or ties to the lake or property, he offered funding without restrictions — other than maintaining his anonymity. His stunning seven-figure donation made Manchaug Pond Foundation the little team that could.”

I’d personally like to shake that gentleman’s hand — if I knew who he was. Only a few people, pledged to secrecy know his identity, and that’s the way he’d like it. But I know what he is, and what he’s done. He’s the hero who preserved a beautiful part of our wild world forever.

Out of all the turmoil and anguish in the battle to save the Beaton Farm emerged several lessons. One is that there’s a great difference between truly wild land and that which is built on, paved and structured to permanently alter the view, landscape and wildlife. We can be architecturally sensitive and try to minimize our human footprint, but once we build, land is no longer wild. Although Holy Cross would have been a good tenant, for Charpentier and the Manchaug Pond Foundation their plan was unacceptable. Hopefully, Holy Cross one day will get its retreat without diminishing any of our dwindling wild lands.

But the biggest lesson, Charpentier feels, “is about how regular people like us can sometimes do extraordinary things. Driven by a great cause, we can occasionally win even against overwhelming odds.” Conservation groups and lake associations throughout the state should be inspired by this victory.

Happy New Year to all who continue to fight to save our wild land. May we have more successes to celebrate in 2014.

Contact Mark Blazis at