Friday, February 17, 2006
ConsCom plows ahead on land management; Farmers deterred by $900/year insurance requirement
Winter construction doldrums and an unanticipated postponement of final action on the Greystone Crossing project off Cross Street gave the Conservation Commission a rare chunk of time to devote to land management. The first item on the February 9 agenda was consideration of town-owned agricultural lands. Three of the four farmers involved and the supervisor of the Foss Farm Community Gardens, Bob Dennison, were present. Cranberry farmer, Mark Duffy, was out of town, but will appear at a later date.
Jack Valentine, who farms 24 acres of the Hutchins/Robbins Lands off Curve Street and shares a four-acre portion with Duffy, was very upbeat. He reported that he harvests anywhere from two to seven tons of alfalfa and hay per acre to help feed his prize herd of Herefords. The four-acre portion yields 20 tons of corn. "It's a wonderful field; there isn't a stone the size of a golf ball in that parcel," he said, adding, "I couldn't be in business if I didn't have that land, so I take very good care of it." Commissioner John Lee, himself a farm manager, complimented Valentine on the condition and appearance of the spread.
The second farmer to report, George Fraser, was less sanguine, and is not applying for a renewal of his license, at least for now. The problem is the $900 per year cost of the insurance requirement added last year to the farmers' agreements along with tougher specifications for clearing of unsightly or invasive vegetation at the edges of the fields. "When you add in the cost of fertilizer and cover crops, it just isn't worth it any more," he explained. This is the same assessment that caused Bedford Road farmer Dick Shohet to give up his contract for haying of the eight-acre agricultural portion of the Fox Hill property last year. The million dollars of liability and vehicular equipment insurance were added to a revised version of the licenses at the insistence of Town Counsel.
After Shohet's withdrawal, Commissioner Tricia Smith, owner and manager of the Carlisle Farmland Cheese goat dairy, was the only applicant to replace him as licensee. For the summer of 2005 she donated funds to the commission to pay for two mowings, since her business was just getting started; but last week she, too, told the commission she is having second thoughts and is not yet sure what she wants to do for the summer of 2006.
In view of the value to the town of having its agricultural holdings used and cared for by local farmers, the Commission discussed the problem, and Commissioner Kelly Stringham offered to revisit the issue with Town Counsel. Conservation Administrator Sylvia Willard advised that the request be broached first with Town Administrator Madonna McKenzie, preferably in a written communication, to which Stringham agreed.
Garden fees doubled
Turning to the community gardens at Foss Farm, Dennison reported that demand for garden space has risen every year. But even with 96 plots made available in 2005, some late applicants were out of luck. Citing rising costs, he recommended that the seasonal fee be increased from five to ten dollars, a suggestion supported by Smith who described the $5 tab as "quaint." Lee noted that some of the growers were talking about improved services, notably increased and easier access to water. He felt that if another well were installed, the fee should probably be $20, but the figure would depend on the sort of facility they had in mind. If improvements are wanted, he said, they should come before the commission with a specific request. Changing the subject, Dennison commented that, considering the number of gate keys he has given out over the years, he would really like to change the lock and start anew, but recognized that it would be costly. For the time being, the commission voted to double the $5 fee for next summer.
Bog house stairs unsafe
With the approaching termination of the three-year lease on the Cranberry Bog House, the commission discussed whether to extend it or issue a revised RFP. In the absence of the present lessee, bog farmer Duffy, who keeps equipment and houses farm workers there in return for in-kind improvements to the building, the board made no decisions but discussed various options. There was agreement that the main stairway to the Spartan third-floor apartment needs replacement for reasons of safety and liability. Architectural plans exist, but it is probably a $10,000 project. Willard was instructed to get a couple of bids in preparation for a possible Warrant Article at the Spring Town Meeting or a new in-kind arrangement.
Commissioner John Lee reminded his colleagues that Duffy has taken care of the property, improved the building and provided critical security but has been unable to tackle the stairway challenge. There was discussion of the possibility of charging rent, perhaps with the commission supplying the initial materials, and then letting a successful lessee recover the money through in-kind labor. Stringham suggested that the town might pay to bring the two possible housing units up to code and make them available for affordable housing. The upshot of the wide-ranging discussion was to request Duffy's input in the immediate future, before presenting options or recommending specific solutions.
Land stewards off and running
On hand were three members of the recently formed Land Stewardship Committee (LSC), who were there to learn more about current usage of town-owned parcels within their newly assigned area of oversight. The LSC, which has undertaken to manage and maintain Carlisle's open space properties as a subcommittee of the Conservation Commission, has held its first two official meetings during January. LSC chair Warren Lyman and members Debbie Geltner and David Smith commented on their activities to date.
Commissioners were surprised and pleased to learn that the five largest parcels of conservation land already have stewards who have volunteered to undertake basic site assessment duties. In addition, the 12-person committee has created four "generic task groups," namely maps and mapping, development of a project website, fauna and flora, and community outreach. The first two groups are already underway and the other two will be starting next week. The map group has a member anxious to learn how to access the Geographic Information System (GIS) and is in touch with the Planning Board's expert and with a nascent "People's GIS" project in Concord.
To comments from Smith and Lee that the commission would like the LSC "to get up to speed" on the history and current usage of Foss Farm, with emphasis on conservation and multi-use issues that are inherent in current Recreation Commission planning, Lyman responded that three stewards are already assigned to Foss Farm. Smith said she saw LSC having a "mediator role" in upcoming site reviews.
Commissioner Peter Burn asked to be kept informed on the habitat assessment group's plans. He said he feels they will need to use more sophisticated methodology than the present state guidelines describe.
Since the ad hoc Land Stewardship Planning Committee that drafted guidelines for formation of the permanent LSC had already developed a sample Site Management Plan for Fox Hill, Lyman suggested that a public hearing be scheduled soon to evaluate the recommended approach. Although some features, such as a possible vernal pool, are not yet finalized, he feels the document is ready for public discussion. All agreed, but no date was set.
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