As Framingham’s Eastleigh Farm faces a host of financial woes, a working group of planners and Town Meeting members has refined a proposal that would allow the farm’s owner to make more money from developing up to about 30 acres of his property.
The proposed zoning bylaw amendment, which is being revised before being presented to Town Meeting for the second time, would allow farmers to develop up to 30 percent of their land in a way that would permit more homes to be built than previously allowed, thereby providing a greater return, town officials said last week.
At the same time, the working group is in the early stages of preparing another proposal that would allow Eastleigh owner Doug Stephan to keep all 112 acres of the dairy farm in agriculture. It would provide farm owners the opportunity to transfer development rights for their land to other locations in town. It would permit them to keep all the acreage in agriculture, but make money off the sale or use of development rights on other properties.
Planning Board chairwoman Christine Long said the development rights measure is still in its formative stages. Long said the group would be “lucky” to have a proposal ready for Special Town Meeting, which will be held sometime later this year.
“Under this program, for example, if you had 1 acre of farmland, you could get 2,000 square feet in commercial or industrial floor in areas where you want to encourage development,” Long said. The rights could be used in places such as downtown, some parts of Speen Street, the Framingham Technology Park, and the 9/90 Corporate Center, she said.
The plight of Eastleigh Farm came to the fore late last month when an accumulation of wet, heavy snow caused the roof of one of its barns to collapse, killing three of the farm’s 50 or 60 milking cows. Stephan said it would cost between $100,000 and $200,000 to repair the barn, adding to a number of expenses that had already been building. The barn was not insured, but he was getting some help from people who were providing donations to help care for cows injured in the collapse. He is also talking about establishing a rebuilding fund.
Stephan bought Eastleigh Farm in 2006 for $4 million, according to information from the Framingham assessors office. According to Will Naser, the town’s chief assessor, his office has put a value of $2.3 million on the land and buildings, but the farm is taxed at $276,100 because it is classified as agricultural land.
A spokesman for the tax collector’s office said Stephan owes $8,878 in taxes.
Stephan says his intention has always been to keep the farm in agriculture, but over the years the goal has proven more difficult as business income didn’t keep up with loan payments and other financial demands. Last year, after giving the farm free water for years, the town started charging Stephan for the commodity, adding another expense.
Now he says he owes millions of dollars to creditors.
The farm faced foreclosure in the fall, but Stephan said he came to an agreement with the bank holding the mortgage.
“They postponed the auction until March, and between now and then we will have another negotiating session,” he said. “But success with the bank depends on the action the town will take to make it easy to save the majority or whole farm in terms of the mortgage.”
A spokesman for Farm Credit East, which holds the mortgage, declined to comment.
Stephan said he doesn’t want to develop “an inch’’ of Eastleigh’s land.
‘Success with the bank depends on the action the town will take to make it easy to save the majority or whole farm.’Doug Stephan, Owner of Eastleigh Farm in Framingham
“I bought it to save it, not develop it,” said Stephan, who said he favors the measure that would allow transferring his development rights. “It’s a win-win for everybody. But if I can’t have the transfer development rights, then I’ll have to develop 30 percent of the farm,” he said.
Stephan has repeatedly appeared before Framingham officials to try to save the farm.
In 2011, Town Meeting considered a measure to have the town eventually take over the farm for around $8 million, but ultimately officials felt uncomfortable with the proposal.
Last fall, Town Meeting delayed action on the bylaw that would permit farmers to develop 30 percent of their land. Long said the annual Town Meeting session convening April 29 will once again consider the bylaw, after planning officials make the measure’s language more transparent.Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.