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Framingham

Framingham Town Meeting delays action on Eastleigh Farm bylaw

Dairy cows at Framingham's Eastleigh Farm, whose owner  is trying to avoid foreclosure.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File 2011

Dairy cows at Framingham's Eastleigh Farm, whose owner is trying to avoid foreclosure.

Framingham’s Town Meeting last week delayed action on a proposed agriculture and open space bylaw that Eastleigh Farm owner Doug Stephan was hoping would help him keep the 111-acre property from foreclosure.

The bylaw would enhance the development value of 30 acres of the farm if Stephan agrees to keep the remaining acreage under an agricultural and open space restriction. The change would permit higher housing density on the parcel, allowing for cluster development with more homes and even multifamily units.

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Developing part of the property would permit Stephan to pay down his mortgage while the rest of the farm would be protected, some local officials said.

But the proposal was referred back to the Planning Board for clarification.

In the meantime, Stephan, who also hosts a nationally syndicated radio show, is seeking other ways to save his farm and nearby homestead.

Stephan faced a foreclosure auction last week but it was delayed when he reached a last-minute deal with the mortgage holder, Farm Credit East ACA. The company agreed to put off the auction until March 27. Neither Stephan nor Farm Credit East could be reached for comment on the terms of the agreement.

The past five years have seen hard times befall Eastleigh Farm, a raw milk dairy operation and unofficial cow sanctuary off Edmands Road, as the recession created problems for farmers nationwide and caused milk prices to drop. Stephan said that despite his best efforts he can’t afford to keep it afloat for long.

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“I loved the place as a kid, and I love this town as a resident, and I love the cows. I’ve put millions of dollars into this farm to save it,” Stephan said before last week’s Town Meeting action. “The only direction I can go otherwise is to develop the land.”

The proposed bylaw would work to the benefit of both Stephan and future developers, according to Amanda Loomis, the Planning Board’s interim administrator.

“If that property were foreclosed on and goes away to development, you’d see the entire site developed. With the restrictions, you’d save most of it from development,” Loomis said. “It also costs less money to develop in terms of roads and infrastructure, because it’s spread over a smaller space.”

But the proposed zoning amendment was met with skepticism and confusion at Town Meeting. Town Manager Robert Halpin said that there were still “too many unanswered questions” and “a lot of complexity” involved in the proposal, and that many members “didn’t understand what they were being asked to do.”

Loomis said that the next step is to have the Planning Board work with various town committees on the proposal, hold more public hearings, and bring the proposal back in front of Town Meeting in the spring.

Stephan said he isn’t wholly optimistic that Town Meeting will eventually support the proposal, and criticized what he sees as an insincere effort by Framingham officials to save Eastleigh Farm.

“They helped TJ Maxx to the tune of tens of millions in tax advantages to try to keep them here,” Stephan said. “The town will get what it wants.”

Seeking the new zoning bylaw is just one of several approaches that Stephan has taken to save Eastleigh and its 300 cows.

He has sought the help of the Sudbury Valley Trustees in gaining conservation protection for the land. The conservation group had previously been successful in obtaining such protection for the 100-acre Pantry Brook Farm and the 300-acre Nobscot Reservation, both in Sudbury. However, the cost of attaining conservation protection — which requires the difference between a property’s value before and after protections are adopted — would have been far too large.

“We’ve tried to help him find ways to enable conservation,” said Christa Collins, the nonprofit’s director of land protection, “but there’s a significant amount of debt on the property right now, and not a lot of funding to do conservation in Framingham.”

The town has not adopted the Community Preservation Act program, which uses an annual surcharge on property taxes, bolstered by state funds, to create a fund for local affordable housing, recreation, historical and open space preservation efforts.

Stephan also turned to the Internet for assistance. Over the summer, a page was set up on a crowd-funding website, IndieGogo, with an accompanying Facebook page titled “I Support Eastleigh Farm” that received more than 2,000 “likes” and raised nearly $10,000 for maintenance of the farm — an ample sum, but far from what is likely needed to appease Farm Credit East.

Halpin said Stephan has been getting a tax break on the farm for the past five years under an agricultural restriction that gives the town the right of first refusal if the property goes up for sale. Taxes saved under the law would have to be repaid for any portion of the land that is developed, Halpin said.

Halpin said he has spoken regularly with Stephan about how Framingham could come to the aid of Eastleigh. However, the matter may be out of the municipal government’s hands, he noted.

“The farm is a priority in Framingham, but this is a private financial transaction between an owner and his creditors and there’s not a lot we can do,” Halpin said.

Dan Schneider can be reached at danieljoshuaschneider@gmail.com.

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