Greenbelt keeps adding to its earthy girth

Essex County Greenbelt works with owners to preserve 15,000 acres of open space

Jim MacDougall at a Topsfield farm subject to a conservation deal.
Jim MacDougall at a Topsfield farm subject to a conservation deal.

Essex County Greenbelt has had a good year.

The Essex-based land trust completed 19 projects in 2012 leading to the conservation of 445 acres of land, bringing to 15,000 the total acres of farmland, wildlife habitat, and scenic landscapes purchased or otherwise preserved.

“It was a strong year, but it’s consistent with what we’ve been doing for more or less the past decade,” said Ed Becker, executive director for the land trust, founded in 1961. “We’re averaging between 15 and 20 completed deals a year, and between 350 and 500 acres a year. It’s keeping pace with that, but we’re pleased because it’s a strong pace.


“That’s just what we want. There’s still a lot of land out there that deserves to be conserved.”

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Greenbelt officials credit different factors for the success, including a strategy to identify desirable properties and reach out to the landowners, a downturn in the building market, and public funding available for land conservation and preservation projects.

“Land up here is still very important,” Becker said. “We’re buying more land than ever before, and it always requires a partnership with the state, the municipalities, and sometimes with the feds in order to pull the financing together. That’s something we’ve gotten very good at, to help us respond to some of these opportunities to buy these parcels.”

One of the key factors working in the trust’s favor remains the desire of some owners to see their land remain open space rather than make more money by selling to a developer.

Essex County Greenbelt is rarely able to pay full-market value for land, so staff members are able to be creative with both financing and tax credits to come to an agreement that will satisfy the landowner, Becker said.


“If someone really wants to develop, they want full-market value, they’re typically not folks we can work with,” Becker said, “But if there’s a conservation vision and a need to get some value out of the property, we can often find a way to make that happen.”

A number of Greenbelt’s conservation projects closed in December, and used the Massachusetts Conservation Land Tax Credit as an incentive for owners to choose conservation. Launched in 2011, the program offers refundable state income tax credits in exchange for conservation land donations.

The credit was used in the deal to preserve Bailey Farm in Haverhill, on Kingsbury Avenue. Vanessa Johnson, the land conservation project manager who worked with sellers, said the credits helped the landowners, Janis and Perley Bailey, achieve a goal for the future use of the 60.7-acre property. The Baileys also plan to protect an additional 21 acres of land they own across the street from the farm, near Chadwick Pond, which will allow for future public access.

“They quite simply never want to see the land developed,” Johnson said of the Baileys, who have lived on the farm since 1960 and raised four children there. “They’ve seen development happen all around them and didn’t want to see it happen to their property. They wanted to see it stay this way for future generations.”

Essex Country Greenbelt
2Essex County Greenbelt bought 40 Byfield acres next to a large state wildlife management area .

Many farm owners and others with large parcels share a similar wish.


“Neither of my parents wanted to see the land developed, and wanted some sort of a solution that would keep the farm intact but also allow their children to stay on the land,” explained Stina (Nutter) MacDougall, who grew up on the Nutter family farm in Topsfield. The land was subdivided over the years to provide a home for the two Nutter children, Stina and her brother, Ben Nutter. The siblings currently operate the farm, where they raise Christmas trees and harvest hay, timber, and organic vegetables.

‘There’s still a lot of land out there that deserves to be conserved.’

In 2012, MacDougall and her brother amended a long-standing conservation easement that included lot-line changes. Under the new agreement, most of a 20-acre section of farmland (excluding their homes) is covered by a conservation easement.

“That farmland can be left forever in the exact state that it’s in now,” said MacDougall, who, like her brother, shares the vision of their parents, Harriot “Bunny” Nutter and the late John Nutter.

In addition to those projects, Greenbelt worked with members of the Pearson family in Newbury to protect 4.5 acres of historic pastureland in the Byfield section. The organization worked with neighbors to raise funds a purchase a permanent conservation easement, which the landowner accepted at less than market value.

Also in Byfield, Greenbelt received a grant from the George H. and Jane A. Mifflin Memorial Fund to purchase 40 acres of priority habitat abutting the state’s 1,555-acre Martin Burns Wildlife Management Area shared by Newbury and West Newbury. The wooded parcel will provide a potential trail link to Greenbelt’s Indian Hill Reservation in West Newbury.

Two contiguous properties in Ipswich totaling 60 acres, with separate owners, also were protected via conservation easements, and the owners benefited from the tax credit. As a result, a corridor of land along Essex Bay, running upland into agricultural fields and back down into the Ipswich River estuary, was permanently protected.

In Gloucester, Greenbelt worked in partnership with the New England Forestry Foundation to acquire the 20-acre Natti Woodlot, abutting the foundation’s Norton Memorial Forest. Greenbelt plans to make it available for public access with the installation of a parking area and marked trails that connect to other parcels and an extensive trail system.

David Rattigan may be reached at DRattigan.Globe@Gmail.