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Plymouth farm to house regional land trust

The Wildlands Trust, a regional land preservation agency with 220 properties and 7,000 protected acres, is returning to its heartland with the purchase of a 10-acre farm in the geographical center of Plymouth.

The Davis-Douglas Farm, located off Long Pond Road, allows the nonprofit agency to move its headquarters to the area of some of its largest holdings, a total of 1,800 acres in the woods and along the ponds of central ­Plymouth, including its launching ­donation in 1973, the Emery Preserve. 

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Growing out of office space in ­Duxbury that housed its staff for ­almost 20 years, the group plans to build an addition to the 100-year-old “gentlemen’s farmhouse” on the property, while preserving the aesthetics of the farm’s rolling field and woodland borders, said executive director Karen Grey. 

The farm’s location is also key to an ambitious plan to open up the woodland conservation areas of Plymouth’s Six Ponds district by hosting a new trailhead facility with parking, trail maps, and public restrooms to stimulate public access to conservation land, Grey said.

The Davis-Douglas farm was ­acquired in a “bargain sale” from the Bongiovanni family, heirs of the farm’s last residents, she said. The brothers who sold the property grew up on the farm in a small cottage converted from a chicken house to a dwelling and want to see the land preserved.

The farm is graced by the sweep of its open grassy meadow just off Long Pond Road, a landscape where views are ordinarily narrowed by woods growing right up to the roadway. Varied elevations, a dirt drive, old orchard trees clothed in lichen, and a preserved granite foundation for an old barn contribute to the aesthetics. Wild turkeys skirt the woodlands margin.

“I could not believe my eyes,” Grey said of her first visit to the site. “Incredible open fields in the middle of the forest.”

One of those fields will welcome Plymouth’s first community garden, 20 small plots loaned to residents needing a space to grow vegetables, accord­ing to the project vision developed by the trust’s board for the site.

With its 1,000-square-foot addition, much of it below grade, the gracefully designed farmhouse will house the trust’s new headquarters.

The agency is also planning to build a conservation center on the farm to host public land-preservation programs, with a meeting room of 100 seats. “It will offer a starting point to elevate the importance of conservation land to the community,” Grey said.

The center will welcome “farmers, teachers, community gardeners, town land committees, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and the general public” for any purpose related to land, the project vision states.

The trust sees the new trailhead as the gateway to its holdings on both sides of Long Pond Road, and it is part of a nexus of public trails that let hikers trek from the woods of Myles Standish State Forest to the shoreline.

The trailhead will be located behind the main house, so that parked cars do not spoil the view, Grey said. A planned new entrance off the main road will keep the comings and goings away from the serenity of the fields.

The trust, which is paying $450,000 for the farm, is seeking to raise $1.9 million for the total project, Grey said. It is worth the money, she said, in part to preserve a piece of the town’s agricultural heritage and “reflect the town’s traditional values.”

Critics of the land preservation movement, however, have argued that conservation properties such as those preserved by the Wildlands Trust cost communities money because they are removed from local tax rolls. As analyst Jeff Pidot stated in a study on the effects of land conservation for the Lincoln Land Institute of Cambridge, “Virtually every conservation easement involves a significant public subsidy.”

According to the assessors office, Plymouth will lose approximately $6,000 in taxes from the properties that make up the 10-acre farm purchase.

Plymouth officials, however, said it would cost the town more in services, such as educating more students, for a residential property than it would collect in tax revenue if the site were developed.

The town may make up that tax loss, since preserved open space tends to increase the value of nearby property, said the town planner, Lee Hartmann.

“Where we have open space, we do find they have higher values,” Hartmann said. Preserved open space means ocean views, lake views, and woodlands, and better views mean higher property values, he said.

Critics have also contended that a patchwork of small conservation parcels across a community makes land use planning impossible, as well as remov­ing land from availability for business or housing.

But in the case of the Davis-Douglas Farm, the new holding connects to other conservation properties in central Plymouth. The area is not fragmented, Hartmann said, and the trust’s open space holdings help support one of the town’s goals. The local Chamber of Commerce is seeking to make a new pitch to vacationers, Hartmann said.

“Plymouth is not only the place to come for all things ­Pilgrim, but for outdoor activities,” he said.

Sam Chapin, a farm neighbor and a descendant of the ­Davises, said the farm’s founder, Howland Davis, was himself a descendant of the town’s principal 19th-century historian, William T. Davis. His detailed study of the local landscape and local families, called “Ancient Landmarks,” underlies much of what is known about Plymouth’s first centuries.

Howland Davis, a successful investment banker sent to open a new branch in New York, sought a summer home in Plymouth for his family, Chapin said.

“Our family has occupied that land since the 1880s,” Chapin said. “Howland Davis’s family spent the summers there and needed a farm to grow veggies, raise chickens, and have a milk cow at times.” In the age before the automobile, the site was too far from the commercial center to run to the store when people got hungry.

The original property consisted of 25 acres, with four houses built on it to serve ­Davis’s children. Chapin lives in one of those houses today on quiet Morgan Road, though it is no longer part of the farm property.

With a staff of nine full-timers, including two interns, and a couple of part-time workers, the Wildlands Trust says it has outgrown its small building on the Philbrick Preserve in ­Duxbury. Its profile has been growing as Southeastern Massa­chusetts has faced increas­ing development pressures, and some families are choosing to preserve the landscapes they lived on and loved. While one-third of the land the trust has helped to preserve is located in Plymouth, the trust has holdings in 40 communities.

Charlotte Russell — whose family donated one of those other nearby conservation properties, the Emery Preserve — praised the trust’s effort to “save a beautiful piece of land and to restore the very interesting farmhouse that has been part of the landscape for over a century.”

David Bongiovanni said its preservation means a lot to his family, too.

“We are thrilled to know that the property will look very similar to how it has looked for the last 100 years,” he said.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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