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Westford voters to decide fate of historic farm

Once a family farmstead well-known for its plump, juicy strawberries, the centuries-old O’Brien Farm in Westford is now home to a wildlife habitat featuring a meandering brook, forested uplands, and wooded wetlands.

Charles H. McColough, who in 2008 inherited the 25-acre property on scenic Vose Road, is offering the town of Westford, Westford Land Preservation Foundation Inc., and Sudbury Valley Trustees an opportunity to purchase a conservation restriction that would protect in perpetuity 23 of the 25 acres.

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The conservation restriction would ban future development of the land while allowing its existing network of trails to be enjoyed for passive recreation, such as cross-country skiing, horseback riding, and snowshoeing.  

Voters at Special Town Meeting, which is scheduled to begin Monday evening, will decide the fate of a proposal that would earmark $760,000 in community preservation funds for the conservation restriction.

“The vision we have is to keep the land in agriculture, predominantly forestry, with a heavy emphasis on wildlife habitat,” said McColough, 69, who divides his time between the historic Westford farm and a home in Waltham. “This property has been in the family for over 125 years, so we have a great appreciation for the land and the wildlife.”

The Community Preservation Act allows cities and towns to adopt a property tax surcharge of up to 3 percent to be used to preserve open space and historic sites and to create affordable housing and recreational facilities. Westford adopted the maximum surcharge at the annual town election in May 2001. Today, 1,715 acres in Westford are under conservation restriction, according to the town’s 2010-2015 Open Space and Recreation Plan.  

Both Westford’s Community Preservation Committee and the town’s Conservation Commission have voted to support the appropriation of preservation act funds for the purchase of the conservation restriction on O’Brien Farm. The proposal was originally submitted to town officials last winter.

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If the Special Town Meeting article is approved by voters and the transaction is finalized, the land will be “under the care, custody, control, and management of the Westford Conservation Commission and Sudbury Valley Trustees and held for conservation purposes.”  

“It’s a beautiful piece of property and a historic one as well,” said Christa Collins, director of land protection at Sudbury Valley Trustees, a regional land trust formed in 1953. “The variety of habitat types on this one parcel makes it very unique. It’s not directly abutting any other conservation land, but other farms and woodland surround it.

“There’s definitely potential for more conservation in the area, which is why we see it as a building block for more conservation,” Collins said.

The O’Brien Farm is home to a 19th-century barn, classic stone walls, and a streetscape reminiscent of the 1880s. It is valued at $1.275 million. The conservation restriction would cost a total of $930,000, with the balance expected to come from private donations and the state.

The land trust has applied for an $85,000 Conservation Partnership grant from the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and expects to hear late this month whether its grant request will be funded, Collins said.

Meanwhile, the town’s land preservation foundation has spent the past few months soliciting donations in the hopes of raising $100,000 in private contributions for the conservation restriction. To date, the foundation has collected just over half of the money needed, according to Andrea Peraner Sweet, president of the foundation’s board of directors.  

If the two groups are successful in their fund-raising efforts, $15,000 would go to the land trust for its stewardship of the property, which would require ongoing monitoring of the land.

In recent years, McColough has been working closely with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources on a comprehensive plan to encourage forestry and preserve the wildlife habitat on O’Brien Farm, which was last tilled in the late 1940s and is specified as a “land of conservation interest” in Westford’s Open Space and Recreation Plan.  

Already, he has introduced additional indigenous plants to the property and created “Elizabeth’s Wildlife Habitat,” named in honor of his mother, Elizabeth (Gallagher) McColough. 

The five-acre area includes three acres of transitional shrubbery, which serves as a primary habitat for wildlife, primarily birds. Future plans call for a demonstration area that could teach people of all ages about forestry and wildlife habitat conservation.

McColough, who delights in the memory of idyllic summer afternoons he spent on the farm as a child, said he plans to develop educational programs for Scout and school groups. Ultimately, he would like to live on the farmstead he inherited from his aunt, Helen (Gallagher) Garrigan, and maintain the land, which has been in his family for four generations.  

Sweet is hopeful the issue will draw many of Westford’s voters to the Special Town Meeting.

Other items on the warrant include a proposed new bylaw that would authorize the town to make temporary repairs to private ways constructed prior to 1955 [Article 13]; a citizens’ petition that would allow drive-up windows in restaurants located in the Commercial Highway District, along Route 110 [Article 18]; and an article that would transfer a parcel of land on Acton Road, at the foot of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, to the town Conservation Commission with the restriction that parking would be prohibited [Article 16]. In all, there are 19 articles on the warrant.

Special Town Meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Abbot School gymnasium, 25 Depot St. To view the warrant, visit westford-ma.gov  and click on the “Town Meeting Information” link from the homepage.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com

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