Cranberry bog alternatives take shape

by Karina Coombs

06aKC BogHouse
The Cranberry Bog house on Curve Street provides storage space for agricultural equipment as well as housing for farm workers. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

Members of the Carlisle Cranberry Bog Alternatives Committee provided detailed updates to four of the ten proposed alternate uses for the Cranberry Bog during their October 17 meeting, with Co-Chair Warren Lyman announcing the group’s efforts were, “heading into the home stretch” as they prepare recommendations for the Board of Selectmen (BOS) later this fall.

Formed by the BOS in June, the eight-person advisory committee is tasked with proposing other viable uses for the 36 acres of conservation land that has been used for cranberry cultivation, including the bog house, service roads and trails and water controls. In July, the committee announced ten alternatives ranging from no action to complete bog renovation as well as conversion to another agricultural use and renovations to the 111-year-old bog house among others (see list, below). 

Option 3: maintenance by DPW

Committee member and Selectman Luke Ascolillo explored the third option: bog maintenance performed either by the Department of Public Works (DPW) or by a contractor. After speaking with Superintendent of Public Works Gary Davis and current farmer Mark Duffy, Ascolillo reported that maintenance appeared to be fairly basic and would most likely involve mowing of the bog’s edges approximately twice per year with equipment the DPW either has or could rent as needed. He estimated costs to be several thousand dollars.

Duffy noted that he mows the interior of the bog with special equipment and was unsure that Davis would be able to take on this task. He also explained that as long as the bog is in cultivation or classified as “in renovation,” mowing would need to happen more frequently. Ascolillo questioned if it would be necessary to keep with this schedule if the bog was no longer going to be used for cranberries. Land in agricultural use is exempt from the Wetlands Protection Act (WPA) and can remain inactive for a period of five years without losing its exemption. Lyman said that he would like to keep the bog’s status unchanged during this period in the event the town reconsiders its use and would therefore want the property maintained. 

Of greater concern to Ascolillo are the bog’s water control structures because he was unsure as to whether or not the DPW was in the position to assume regular maintenance or had the capacity to address a catastrophic failure such as a dike “blow out.” Ascolillo will need to determine a cost for dike and culvert repairs to account for this type of scenario and ensure town funding is identified as this would fall under the Conservation Commission (ConsCom) budget. Conservation Administrator Sylvia Willard will follow up with Davis to see if he feels the DPW could take on this expanded role and if it would require additional staff or outsourcing. Both Ascolillo and Lyman noted that a subsequent study would have to be conducted by a consultant at some point.   

boglistOption 6: can a park be created 

on bog land?

Proposal six was to transform a section of the property into a park that would be maintained by the DPW. After speaking with a local landscape architect, Lyman proposed that they focus their efforts on the 4.5 acres of sand-covered bog closest to Curve Street where they could have passive recreation space and proximity to handicapped parking. An open and grassy spot would be in the center of the parcel and a few shady areas with trees and seating would be located along a perimeter. Lyman also envisioned a paved walkway around the park that could accommodate wheelchairs, an informal dog park area and some native plants that could provide an educational element.

After some discussion the group concurred that paving would most likely fall outside of the allowable modifications to the land and a proposed bridge across River Meadow Brook would not be feasible because of the soil’s makeup. Duffy noted they would be working with 20 plus feet of peat. Willard pointed out that the area is in a 100-year flood zone so they would need to be mindful of that no matter what is pursued. Lyman suggested adding height to the area with clean fill and topsoil while also adding a drainage system to address this problem. 

While member Debbie Geltner liked the idea, she emphasized that because of the 20 to 30 feet of “muck,” growing grass or maintaining trees would be difficult and even if enough fill was added to create height, the weight of the soil would compress the mud underneath to the point that the area would sink. “To put a park there you are really fighting hydrology,” she said. Ascolillo asked if they would even be able to add fill to the land, noting that if the property came out of agricultural use they would face a number of regulatory hurdles. Geltner agreed and did not believe the state would look fondly on draining the site further. While Lyman was hesitant to shelve the idea since it was received well initially, he will revisit the proposal with these concerns in mind. 

Option 10: upgrade bog house

Member Vibhu Walia focused his efforts on potential renovations to the bog house that would allow the town enough revenue to support farming operations. Walia met with local realtor Brigitte Senkler and builder Chris Hart to tour the property and review the current layout of its two existing apartments. Currently, the ground floor apartment is 1,000 square feet while the second floor unit is 2,000. Walia explained that a basic assumption was made that the building is structurally sound. And while the exterior is okay, he did note that there was no central heating and that the well and septic system were obsolete. 

Two preliminary proposals were outlined: keeping the current layout of the two apartments, but with substantial upgrades including heating, water and septic or completely gutting the interior space to create two, two story 2,500 square foot townhomes. In both cases, the exterior would remain mostly unchanged. Walia explained that both Senkler and Hart felt that if the town wanted a successful long-term rental, the second option would be preferable, noting that it would appeal to families that may want to live in Carlisle and want larger living space and could be rented fairly easily and for multiple years.

Walia estimated that upgrading the two existing apartments would require a total investment of $368,500 and provide the town with a net annual income of $7,656 after debt service. Converting the interior into side-by-side townhomes had an estimated cost of $860,000 with a net annual income of $19,452 after debt service expenses. Associate member John Ballantine reminded Walia that there may be added constraints because the property was town-owned. For instance, he thought Walia would need to raise his estimates by 30% to cover prevailing wage requirements for public projects, bringing costs significantly higher. 

The committee did note that if the current layout of the bog house remained unchanged, the town could still maintain bog operations with access to storage. However, with the property currently part of the farming operation, Lyman pointed out that it could “upset the apple cart” if taken away. Ascolillo noted that if the second scenario was pursued, not only would the town lose the bog operation, but it may also have to repay some of the $165,000 in Community Preservation Act funds authorized at the 2010 Town Meeting.

Option 4: cranberry economics

Explaining that the current operation of the bog was uneconomic, Ballantine briefly presented his draft outlining the economics involved in renovating the bog to increase its yield of quality berries and hopefully attract Ocean Spray, which dominates the market. Ballantine explained that as a cooperative, Ocean Spray growers sell at higher rates, which he described as the “A pool.” Independent growers receive considerably less for their berries and are termed the “B pool.” Ballantine reports that Carlisle loses an estimated $500 per acre compared to Ocean Spray growers and is also spending significantly less on maintenance.

Assuming Carlisle could successfully renovate the bog and cultivate the entire area with high yield berries and strong maintenance, Ballantine said that Carlisle could become attractive to the cooperative, but acknowledged that Ocean Spray is currently not accepting new members. Preliminary draft estimates show that to refurbish the 19 acres currently in cultivation it could cost between $400,000 and $700,000, 

with another $30,000 per year for the three to four years it would take for the bog to mature. Market price could vary greatly depending on whether or not Carlisle remained independent or was invited to join the cooperative, but the town could possible break even at $20 per barrel or make a profit of between $40,000 and $50,000 at $40 per barrel. Ballantine estimated the current price for independent growers at only $10 to $15 per barrel.

Geltner asked what the likelihood was of Ocean Spray inviting Carlisle into their “A pool” and Duffy pointed out that the cooperative already has existing growers and their “B pool” would take precedence over Carlisle, sending the town to the back of the line. “That’s not something I’m banking on,” he said. And while Duffy explained that the possibility does exist, after farming cranberries for 28 years he sees it as a tough struggle. “If you don’t get the price,” said Ballantine. “It doesn’t work.” Duffy also explained that the cost to maintain the bog would be very high, but the revenue would not be there to support it, estimating it could cost as much as $2 million to redo the entire area. Because Carlisle’s water rights are contingent upon the bog being agricultural, Duffy also pointed out that if just half of the bog were improved, the town could lose half of its water rights. Ballantine will update his draft and discuss it in more depth at the group’s next meeting.

Willard also noted that the fiscal year 2018 budget process had begun and asked Lyman if he anticipated asking for money since he would need to do so before the Finance Committee’s November 14 deadline. Lyman said that he thought the group should ask for a year of bog maintenance and there was a strong possibility they would request funds to hire a consultant for one or more of the alternative options.

The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for November 7 at 7 p.m. ∆