Friday, January 16, 2004
Town has opportunity to buy 45 acres off West Street
The past week has brought confirmation of news that should help Carlisleans repel the winter doldrums. The town has a chance to purchase 45 acres off South Street with no tax increase, by using CPA funds to cover the $1.985 million cost. This opportunity is a result of more than two years of land planning and negotiations involving the non-profit Carlisle Conservation Foundation (CCF) and the Benfield family. In addition to offering land for municipal and town conservation use, the Benfields' detailed plans specify that much of the remaining Benfield property will have many conservation resources protected while a small number of new homes are constructed.
Using CPA funds
So, if the voters approve the accord, where will the money come from? The answer advanced by CCF is that it can be funded with Community Preservation Act monies. A half million dollars could come now from the $900,000 currently in the town's CPA account, with the remainder of the cost bonded over the next 15 years, using only a piece of future local CPA income. As readers may recall, CPA money derives 50% from an approved local tax and 50 % from state matching funds. CCF member Greg Peterson has been told by sources he considers reliable that the town can count on matching funds of $240,000 in October. Another $240,000 in local CPA tax receipts will be collected with the May property taxes.
Because the state has in excess of $60 million dollars in the CPA Trust Fund, or enough to pay out current claimants for five years, there is a high probability that matching funds will also be disbursed in 2005, even if the legislature makes a significant raid on the state cash. Should state contributions dry up in the future, Peterson notes that payments can be made from a portion of the local CPA levy alone. Hence no new taxes would be required, and monies would still be available for other CPA projects.
The town had been alerted to the probability of major changes in its western quadrant when the Benfield family sought and received Approval Not Required (ANR) status from the Planning Board in September of 2003. That vote established new developable parcels and 46 acres of open space parcels on 150 acres of land along South and West Streets, designated as Parcels A, B and C (See map on page 5). This was the first public notice that something important was brewing. That something turned out to be an agreement between CCF and the Benfield family that the entire 178-acre Benfield holdings would be put into permanent Conservation Restriction (CR) and the Town would be given the option to buy the 45-acre Parcel A off South Street.
Under the terms of the agreement, the family would eschew subdivision development in favor of a limited potential of 13 new houses. Seventy-five acres would be gifted to CCF outright, about 47 acres constituting portions of the approved housing envelopes would be designated as "non-buildable" land, thus protecting a total of 122 acres or 68% of the property from development, and two public trail easements would be granted across private land. Finally, the CCF-Benfield agreement granted CCF an option to purchase the entire 45-acre parcel A, off South Street.
This agreement supersedes the elder Benfield's previous "remainder interest" donation of 71 acres (roughly Parcels C and D) and establishes an overarching plan for the entire patrimony, one characterized as "a gift of stunning generosity" by CCF representatives.
Before any construction begins, the town will be given an opportunity to purchase Parcel A at fair market price, thus potentially removing five of the building envelopes from private development and offering the town a possible multi-use parcel.
Goals of the entire land plan
As explained in an interview with CCF representatives Greg Peterson, Art Milliken and Jay Luby, CCF and town officials hoped to accomplish four general objectives.
Preserve wildlife corridor
First, they wanted the open space components so located that they made connections with existing CRs and town-owned land — preeminently the 65-acre Lovejoy Family CR between West Street and Heald Road, CCF's 31.5-acre Spencer Brook Reservation at the junction of South and West Streets, the town of Acton's 400-acre Spring Hill and Boy Scout Reservation off Pope Road, two early-generation Benfield CRs designated as Parcels D and E, plus tax-title lots belonging to the town. They viewed the connections as helping to fill in a long-sought trail and wildlife corridor extending from the Lovejoy CR, through the Benfield properties, across the Spencer Brook land to the 34.5-acre town-owned Bisbee Land on Concord Street and thence to the environs of the Estabrook Woods.
Second, the negotiators requested two trail easements, one connecting old cart paths still used by hikers from Concord Street, through the woods off South Street and up to West Street, and another going to the top of the old ski hill off West Street. These were granted by the Benfield team.
Protect rural vistas
Third, they wanted to maintain the rural aspect of South and West Streets. The desired streetscapes were assured by limiting off-road access to one common drive per parcel, with all buildings set back at least 300 feet from the officially designated "scenic roads."
Multi-use land for the town
In addition, by acquiring Parcel A, the town could obtain multi-use land that includes upland forests, open meadows, lands suitable for both active and passive recreation, environmentally significant wetlands and locations for affordable and/or town employee housing.
The option to acquire Parcel A fulfills a 1986 letter from the family patriarch (Ben) Adalbert Benfield, in which he expressed his wish to give the town a chance to purchase a portion of his land "at fair value." CCF borrowed the 10% down payment to exercise the option to buy Parcel A, which would give town boards and the citizenry the time needed to consider its value to the town and inform the voters on the issues at stake.
Benfield land is top-ranked for open space
As explained by CCF negotiator Peterson, the Benfield property as a whole is ranked at the top of the list of unprotected properties that the town would like to acquire, along with the Valentine farm on Acton Road, the Sorli farm and the Wilson land on Westford Street. The list appears in Carlisle's Year 2000 Open Space and Recreation Plan along with the yardsticks used to evaluate the ranking. The document was approved by Town Meeting and may be referenced at Gleason Public Library and the Conservation Commission office at Town Hall.
Why parcel A instead of B or C
According to CCF representatives, Parcel A was chosen for purchase as opposed to Parcels B or C because it offered the best possibility for multiple-use, which has been an objective of both the Municipal Land Acquisition Committee and the Community Preservation Act Committee. As described by CCF representatives, the topography is relatively flat and free of ledge. It features a three-acre rectangular field along South Street, "a natural location for an athletic field," plus an interior "breathtaking meadow." It offers 24 acres of open space suitable for passive recreation such as hiking, picnicking, kite flying, etc., and 21 acres suitable for affordable and/or employee housing, and active recreation such as athletic fields with easy access for local or visiting sports teams. However, CCF emphasizes that any determination of use must await a public planning process. The line between the open space components and that devoted to other municipal uses follows a "convenient and logical" stone wall, to quote Peterson.
Permits and timelines
The Benfield team has obtained a Planning Board go-ahead that accepts the three common drives and allows 14 building envelopes, five in Parcel A, five in Parcel B, including Benfield's present residence, and four in Parcel C. All documents, including deeds and CRs have been signed and put in escrow. They will be proceeding with common drive special permit applications and related orders of conditions in the near future. The Benfield team has largely completed the determination of wetland boundaries with the Conservation Commission at a hearing held last Thursday.
Meanwhile CCF agreed to borrow just under $200,000 to exercise CCF's option to buy and, according to Peterson, has spent approximately $60,000 on outside law firms, appraisers, surveyors, land planners, etc., expecting to recover it if the town purchases Parcel A. Adding that to the purchase price of $1,925,000, the total cost to the town would be $1,985,000.
Additional information regarding the Benfield limited development plan and Parcel A is available at CCF's website: www.carlisleconservationfoundation.org.
Since the closing on purchase of Parcel A must take place by mid-April and a Special Town Meeting by mid-March, town boards will be pressed to assess their positions on purchase and usage priorities. Board and commission calendars already reflect the urgency:
January 13 — Board of Selectmen discussed a presentation on the subject. (See story on page 1)
January 14 — CPA Committee heard basic presentation.
January 27 — Historical Commission will hold its first session on the subject.
At this pace the voters can anticipate a lot of homework between now and mid-April.
© 2004 The