When the Board of Selectmen proposed selling a piece of undeveloped land in the Greenwood neighborhood to a residential developer last August, members of the Wakefield Conservation Commission opposed the move and argued that the town-owned property should be preserved as open space.
It’s a dilemma facing many Massachusetts towns and cities as they wrestle with whether to conserve or develop municipally owned open space.
The Wakefield property, a 1.5-acre parcel off Druid Hill Avenue, is lush with native trees and plants and is a habitat for migratory birds and wild turkeys.
“This is precisely the type of natural habitat that is becoming scarcer in Wakefield and that should be protected,” chairman Frank Luciani wrote in a letter to selectmen outlining the panel’s opposition to the sale. “The land in question has significant value to the town as open space.”
Despite the commission’s pleas, the eight-member board went ahead with the sale to a developer who is planning to build several houses on the property.
Selectmen chairman Tiziano Doto, who supported the land sale, argues that Wakefield has a lot of open space and the town had little use for the land, acquired through a tax lien years ago. He said that although the sale didn’t generate much immediate revenue — it only brought “a few hundred thousand dollars” — putting the property back on the tax rolls would bring in more revenue and help hold the line on future tax increases in town.
“We try to keep as much open space as possible. We don’t want to overdevelop the town,” he said. “But if we have a piece of vacant land that’s just sitting there, and the town doesn’t need it, then we should try to sell it as long as it doesn’t affect the environment or negatively impact the surrounding area.”
Luciani and other Conservation Commission members argue that Wakefield should keep what it has for land, regardless of whether the town uses it.
They point out that most of the open space in Wakefield is privately owned, and say the sale of the Druid Hill Avenue parcel was contrary to the town’s open space plan, which was approved by voters and identified the property as worthy of preserving.
“The open space plan is not intended as a manifesto of a small group of environmentalists, but reflects the consensus view of Wakefield residents that open space be preserved,” he said.
Wakefield has sold other pieces of land to developers in recent years. In 2011, selectmen voted to sell the 100-year-old former Franklin School property on Nahant Street for redevelopment as condominiums, a move that was approved by Town Meeting.
Environmentalists argue that local governments benefit from preserving open space. A report released in September by the Trust for Public Land estimates that for every $1 Massachusetts spends on land conservation, it gets at least $4 in goods and services in return.
“These results showed that conservation is an excellent investment, and they are consistent with a dozen similar studies we have conducted across the nation in the past four years,” said Jessica Sargent, the report’s author.
The report argues there are numerous benefits of land conservation, including boosting the state’s economy through outdoor recreation; protection of drinking water and clean air; flood control and prevention; and storm-water management.
Conservation boards in some communities are actively seeking out undeveloped land – often competing against developers — for purchase by partnering with the state or nonprofit groups to help with funding. In many cases, voters have approved the deals.
In October, Rowley voters agreed to spend $10,000 to study the town’s proposed purchase of a 187-acre vacant Girl Scout camp for preservation and public recreational use. In Beverly, town officials are eyeing another vacated Girl Scout camp, the 11.8-acre Camp Paradise on Cole Street, for conservation.
Working with Essex County Greenbelt, the town of Georgetown is in the final stages of obtaining the development rights to the 18-acre Wheeler Brook Farm on Jewett Street for $250,000 — with some funds from the town and others from grants — ensuring that it will remain actively farmed open space.
And in Ipswich, Greenbelt announced last month that it had partnered with the town and received state and federal financial support to purchase a $1.1 million conservation restriction on 70 acres of the Sisters of Notre Dame property on Jeffrey’s Neck Road, a key piece of a 7,000-acre corridor of permanently protected public and private land.
But the efforts haven’t been without controversy, and in some communities local conservation commissions have been accused of having too much power over thorny environmental issues such as wetlands mitigation.
“Some of these boards are overreaching,” said Doto, a real estate lawyer, who said despite the disagreement over the Druid Hill parcel, Wakefield selectmen have a good working relationship with members of the town Conservation Commission.
And a pending state Supreme Judicial Court ruling could determine whether towns and cities can tax land owned by nonprofits such as the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. That includes some 1.25 million acres in Massachusetts that have been protected by private nonprofit land trusts.
The dispute stems from the town of Hawley’s decision to tax a 120-acre parcel of woodland owned by the New England Forestry Foundation. Officials in the Western Massachusetts town said the foundation has done little to encourage public use of the woods and did not qualify for a tax exemption. They sent the foundation a $173 bill.
Some cash-strapped municipal governments argue that large tracts of conservation land have been improperly classified as tax-exempt over the years and if Hawley wins, they are expected to scrutinize local conservation land as a possible source of revenue.
Land trusts say that would have a chilling effect on conservation efforts, and they worry they could end up paying property taxes on the protected lands.
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