When Waltham purchased 28 acres of prime, active agricultural land near the Watertown line about a year ago, it was hailed as a victory for the city.
The $17.4 million deal with UMass Amherst protected vital public urban space, while allowing the land to continue as a source of locally grown produce and play home to a host of nonprofit tenants.
But as Mayor Jeannette McCarthy explores options for the Beaver Street property, officials at the Waltham Fields Community Farm, which has tended to the land for nearly 30 years, say they’re at risk of losing not only land, but also the crop they donate to hunger relief organizations and educational programs.
“We have strong connections to the city of Waltham,” said Stacey Daley, the farm’s executive director. “We want this to remain a community urban farm.”
The community farm’s future lies largely in the hands of the mayor, who hasn’t openly signaled support for it to stay. Instead, the city has been actively looking for new proposals on future use of the land, which is deed-restricted to agricultural, recreational, or open space use.
The city on Wednesday issued a request for proposals for much of the property, requiring prospective tenants to shoulder the cost of environmental cleanup of some city-owned structures on the site. A separate city cleanup is planned for a contaminated quarter-acre spot near Waverley Oaks Road.
McCarthy declined repeated requests for comment, and through her administrative assistant, refused to make another city official available to answer questions.
At a recent City Council meeting, she told councilors, “I believe the citizens of Waltham should also have a chance to use this farm.”
The community farm is considering responding to the proposal request, Daley said, but the farm having to take on some environmental work on the property could hinder that.
“It is onerous,” Daley said. “It certainly presents risks to us for sure. There’s a much larger financial responsibility that a small nonprofit will be challenged by.”
The city has ordered the farm to remove equipment by mid-May due to environmental work on the site, according to a letter McCarthy sent to councilors in January. This has the effect of blocking the farm from using about a third of its 10 acres of fields, according to Daley, which will greatly reduce the season’s output.
The city’s process has left Daley, and supporters such as state Senator Michael Barrett, expressing a mix of anger, frustration — and even bafflement — that Waltham’s purchase of farmland could end up harming the farm itself.
“In Waltham, you have a standout nonprofit agricultural operation that could simply collapse if you drive away the human network that has developed around the farm in the last three decades,” said Barrett, who worked on the deal. “There has to be a better way.”
Efforts to preserve farming at the site go back several years, when it was still part of a nearly 60-acre property owned by UMass Amherst. The university inherited the property in the early 1920s from Waltham resident Cornelia Warren, who bequeathed it for agricultural use.
By 2019, the community farm and other nonprofits feared they would be evicted by the university, and called on the city to buy the property and preserve it.
The farm donates organic vegetables to local aid programs, including the local Boys and Girls Club, said Erica Young, the youth program’s executive director. Young said kids have also visited the farm to learn about agriculture.
“They’ve definitely been a valued partner,” Young said.
Some residents have reached out about the property, including Allison Ostrowski, who told city leaders in an e-mail last month that the community farm should remain in place.
“To diminish Waltham Fields Community Farm by breaking up the land for other various uses would be unconscionable,” she wrote.
Urban farms are a growing trend across the country and play an important role in supporting urban agriculture and food security, said Marty Dagoberto Driggs, policy director for the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
But it’s unusual for a city-owned farm to offer a multi-year lease, he said. According to the city of Waltham’s proposals request, the lease term for the Beaver Street farm would be for five years.
“While it’s not rare for a city to own the land for an urban farm, it is rare for a city to want to sign a long-term lease. ... If the city owns the lot, there’s always a looming threat of eviction,” Dagoberto Driggs said.
A small group of city councilors, including Colleen Bradley-MacArthur, are among those who have criticized the city’s handling of the property. The city should seek out the expertise of people who have been working on the farmland, she said.
“I don’t think that all of the residents who have worked from the land, and benefited from the land, have been listened to by the city,” she said. “We are getting very close to missing out on an opportunity to keep this land for its intended agricultural use.”
On Thursday, representatives from the farm and other nonprofits located on the site met to discuss the city’s proposal request, Daley said. There were concerns among some of the groups that they may have to move, she said.
There was “confusion, frustration, and conversation about the new and challenging RFP requirements for our small nonprofits, and the increasing need for some to consider looking at other office space for stability,” Daley said in a text message.
City officials and farm advocates agree some environmental work is needed.
There is soil contamination on a roughly quarter-acre near the property’s southern border along Waverley Oaks Road, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Daley, with the community farm, said that section is not used for farming.
State Representative Tom Stanley, who also serves as a city councilor and also worked on the land purchase, said as the landowner, the city must ensure there are no environmental issues on the site.
“We want them to continue, and be there,” Stanley said of the community farm. “But sometimes you have to make adjustments to ensure safety.”
City Councilor Sean Durkee, who represents the city ward that includes the farmland, said the city must still do its due diligence to seek out potential new uses for the property. It cannot show favoritism to any particular group as it seeks proposals for the land’s use, he said.
Still, he added, “the city did not buy the farm to kick anyone out.”
Daley, in an interview, said she wished the city and the community farm could have worked together on a plan for the property’s future use.
“We know [the land] better than anyone, and we wish that our voice was brought to the table,” Daley said.
Clarification: A comment in the part of the story introducing Marty Dagoberto Driggs, policy director for the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, has been changed slightly to clarify his meaning regarding a long-term lease for a city-owned farm property.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.