Sutton Voters Decide Tonight – Protection of 378 Watershed Acres

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Towns Looking to Protect 378 Acres at Whittier Farms
Selectmen support APR on Whittier land

BY TOM REILLY

Town Administrator Jim Smith updated the board on a proposed Agricultural Preservation Restriction on Whittier Farms. Smith said the Whittier family has been working on the measure with the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources and it appears that an offer from the state will come in September. The offer would initiate a time period during which the town needs to decide if it wants to contribute monetarily to this preservation restriction. Town meeting approval is required to do so.

The APR is a voluntary program that offers an alternative to owners of farmland who choose to see the property protected rather than sell it for development. Smith said that without the APR the most logical use of such land is for residential housing development. The Whittiers are seeking the APR for 378 acres of land: 312 acres on Town Farm Road and Douglas Road in Sutton and 66 acres in Oxford.

The APR program offers to pay farmland owners the difference between the “fair market value” and the “agricultural value” of their property in exchange for a permanent deed restriction that prevents the land from ever being developed for anything other than a farm purpose. The goal is to allow the land to still be used for farming while preventing its acquisition by housing developers. Smith said the state is offering roughly $10,000 per acre. Towns usually contribute between 10 percent and 20 percent of the cost, with Sutton looking to contribute in the 10 percent range. Smith said that the state ultimately sets the percentage but that Sutton’s percentage could be lower because it is a “Right to Farm” community.

Using what he called “rough numbers” because the state has yet to make a bona fide offer, Smith said the north parcel of Whittier Land on Town Farm Road would protect 175 acres under the APR, with the state contributing $1,422,000 and the town $136,000. The south parcel, which is along Douglas Road, contains 137.5 acres for which the state would be expected to pay $1,692,000 while the town would need to come up with $144,000. In total, the state would pay almost $3.2 million, Sutton would pay $280,000, and Oxford would have to come up with $66,000 for the 66 acres in that town.

Both boards of selectmen would need to approve the warrant for the APR, Smith said, and then send the warrant to town meeting to approve the funding. He is recommending a debt exclusion — where the money is paid off over a period of years. Smith said the payment of roughly $300,000 from the operating budget would simply be too much to absorb. A special election would be needed to complete the process.

Smith said he is tentatively thinking of holding the special election on Nov. 24. He acknowledged that holding the election on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving is “tricky” but that it is hard to find the perfect time. He’d hoped to combine the special election with the primary for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy, but the state told him that nothing else could be on the ballot.

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