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Acton to vote on turning farm into park

Acton residents will vote next month on a proposal that would transform the Morrison Farm property into a park in the heart of town with trails, a playing field, and a new nature center.

The Morrison Farm Committee has been working on a plan for the 32-acre town-owned property, and is ready to ask Town Meeting for $2.8 million in funding to make it a reality.

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“Morrison Farm is a keystone location in the town of Acton,’’ said Bill Mullin, the chairman of the Morrison Farm Committee. “It’s a beautiful piece of land, and we want to preserve it and use that land for the benefit of our citizens.’’

There are two articles related to Morrison Farm on this year’s annual Town Meeting warrant. One seeks $260,000 in Community Preservation Act funds, and another requests authorization to borrow $2.5 million to pay for the rest of the project.

The money would be borrowed by the town over at least 15 years, and be paid back each year with community preservation funds. Each year the town collects close to $800,000 through a 1.5 percent surcharge on property taxes that is earmarked for eligible projects. About $200,000 of that would go toward the Morrison Farm bond each year if the measure is approved. A two-thirds vote is required to approve the bond.

Town Meeting starts April 1 at 7 p.m. in Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, and could last several nights.

Selectman Michael Gowing said it’s an exciting plan that could have a great benefit to the town.

‘Morrison Farm is a keystone location in the town of Acton, It’s a beautiful piece of land and we want to preserve it and use that land for the benefit of our citizens.’

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He said there were lots of ideas and suggestions from groups about what to do with the property, and he thinks the committee has done a good job choosing what’s best for the town.

But he said the cost and financing plan is raising some questions. He also said there is some concern about plans to demolish a barn on the site.

Gowing said the town has not borrowed money for community preservation projects in the past, and expects some residents to have questions about how it works. But the biggest issue, he thinks, is about the plan to demolish the barn, which has some historical significance.

“There is still some anxiousness about that,’’ he said. “Once it’s gone it’s gone. But we’re trying to make it a functional place, not a museum. It’s going to be an amazing place.’’

Victoria Beyer, a member of the town’s Community Preservation Committee and its Historical Commission, agreed that there will be opposition to the demolition of the barn.

But in the end, Beyer said, it’s the best approach for the sake of the project.

“The building would have to be refurbished, and I don’t think it’s a wise use of money, time, and effort,’’ she said.

In 1997, Town Meeting voted to acquire the farm, on Concord Road between Woodlawn Cemetery and Ice House Pond, but couldn’t take control of the property until 2003, when the last family member passed away.

Mullin said the time is right to act on the property, citing the proposal developed by his committee and the available funding.

The plan calls for 15 acres of forested land to be protected under the care of the Conservation Commission; a large open meadow; the continuation of community garden plots and the Pam Resor Orchard;formal preservation of the Robbins Homestead site; the preservation of the Ice House foundation; and a newbuilding that would be calledthe Morrison Nature and History Center.

There would be boardwalks and trails and a connecting bridge, a picnic area, playground, East Acton Village Green, and a playing field for informal pick-up games.

“The great part of this is it has many different elements,’’ Mullin said.

“We’re preserving open space, enhancing historical assets, and creating recreational opportunities for people of all ages and abilities.’’

A major part of the plan calls for building a 3,000-square-foot community gathering space.

He said it will be a place where community organizations can meet and for programs like a nature camp.

“It’s the fulcrum for the project,’’ Mullin said. “There isn’t really a community gathering location in Acton, and that’s what this will be.’’

He said it will be an open space with bathrooms and a small kitchen.

As part of the plan, the existing farm house has been secured and will remain on the site but not be open to the public. The barn will be demolished and the new nature center constructed in its place. Mullin said the new center would be designed to resemble the barn.

If funding is approvedin April, Mullin said, work could begin immediately.

The first steps would be an archaeological survey, designs, and permitting.

Construction work would take place this fall and next spring, with a grand opening for the new nature center tentatively set for summer 2014.

“This is the realization of a dream and a promise fulfilled,’’ Mullin said.

“It’s a unique opportunity to create a park in the center of Acton that will be there for hundreds of years.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached by e-mailing jflefferts@ yahoo.com
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