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Foxborough

Presence of rare salamander jeopardizes proposed land sale

A tiny creature found swimming in a vernal pool on Foxborough land could throw a wrench into a plan to auction off the town-owned property and apply the proceeds to some sorely needed capital projects, like a new Town Hall.

The discovery of the marbled salamander — the rarest of its kind in the state — on the Oak Street property has also heated up a conversation between town officials, who want to sell the land, and Foxborough’s Conservation Commission, which says the parcel has been designated open space for decades and should be preserved.

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“Hopefully, everyone in Foxborough can work together to come up with a good solution,’’ said Jacob Kubel, a conservation scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

Kubel, who has made it his job to comb the state in search of the marbled salamander, said the rare amphibian’s habitat should be protected.

“To our knowledge, there are probably 90 local populations that we believe still exist,’’ he said.

For three years, meanwhile, Foxborough’s Asset Review Committee has been winnowing down its list of surplus, saleable municipal properties that could be sold both to make money and to get the land back on the local tax rolls.

The inactive properties now under the town’s care had been acquired as gifts, taken by tax title, or foreclosure, said committee member and Selectwoman Lorraine Brue.

Besides the Oak Street acreage, four other parcels that are on the to-sell list include an old town fire station, land on Garrett Spillane Road and on Pine Acres Road, and the former Keating Funeral Home property on Market Street, Brue said.

A combined sale has been expected to raise about $1.6 million, of which about $750,000 would come from the Oak Street land where the salamanders were found. The property, formerly known as Camp Lincoln Hill, was the site of the town’s “haunted” house at one point, Brue said. Now it is dotted with ramshackle buildings and piles of rubble.

The 18-plus-acre parcel has been tentatively divided into two parts. One part includes five developable lots with Oak Street frontage, totaling 6 acres; the other part, comprising the rest of the land, lies behind the five lots and includes the area where the salamanders were found. An additional 8 town-owned acres contiguous to the parcel for sale have been set aside to protect a well, according to Brue.

The salamanders live in the upland areas of the property but travel down to wetlands to breed, officials said.

Ambystoma opacum, as the stubby, striped species is known scientifically, is a once-prolific creature that, because of development and other environmental factors, has now been relegated to the list of the state’s rarest, Kubel said.

“I’ve found probably a dozen myself. So, it’s very encouraging whenever we receive a record of a new population, especially in protected open space,” he said.

And therein lies the disagreement between some town officials and Foxborough’s conservation officials, who have filed for protective status for the animal.

Brue and Town Manager Kevin Paicos say they still believe a compromise can be reached, even if it means selling only part of the land. Representatives of the Conservation Commission did not return calls for comment.

“The finding of a state-listed species suggests that we will need to respect and protect their habitat,’’ Paicos said. “I am unclear right now if that includes all of the property that was being considered for sale.”

Paicos said he and other officials are still researching the issue and he will be meeting with the Conservation Commission in a couple of weeks.

Speaking at a January selectmen’s meeting, commission members stated that they believe the property was specifically purchased by the town as a venue for recreation and open space in the 1970s and a sale is illegal. Questions of a partial sale are muddied by the fact the salamanders live in an upland area and travel to the water to breed, they said.

A study will be necessary to address the impact as well as see whether the town must ask the state for permission to sell, officials said. Paicos said Foxborough voters informally agreed to use the property for recreation, not for it to be officially protected. In the end, voters at Town Meeting must decide, Brue added.

Marbled salamanders, with their distinctive black-and-white markings, live underground for about 10 months of the year. They are more common in the southern and western parts of their range, Kubel said, from Texas to Florida — and proliferate in South Carolina and Georgia. They are also found in southern New Hampshire.

Kubel said Foxborough is a “sweet spot” for the animals, and Southeastern Massachusetts has other large strongholds, such as in Rochester, Dartmouth, Westport, and Wrentham.

According to a state fact sheet, the female marbled salamander generally lays between 50 and 150 eggs in a nest under dead leaves or other protected areas in a dry vernal pool. She stays with the eggs and protects them until the pool fills with water and they hatch a few days later.

It isn’t the first time that a threatened species has stymied a Foxborough project. Work on a water treatment plant on Oak Street near Lamson Road was delayed last year after it was learned the site contained Eastern Massachusetts’ largest habitat of frosted elfins, a protected butterfly. Because the species lays its eggs on indigo plants, which larvae then feed on, more than 10 acres of the plant had to be relocated last year, officials said.

Similarly, workers had to accommodate the oak hairstreak butterfly that was discovered some years back during construction of the Lodge at Foxborough apartment complex.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.
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