Earlier this week, I shared that The Trustees of Reservations is selling tickets to Fall Fun on the Farm each Sunday through early November. It appears not everyone is thrilled with the idea.
The Board of Selectmen expressed concern about reduced free access to the Chestnut Hill Farm property for Southborough residents. Potential erosion of public access is an issue that the Conservation Commission has also flagged.
Access to trails/passive recreation on the property were part of the condition of the Conservation Restriction purchased by Town Meeting years ago.* Parking access and other issues around enforcement of the CR have been points of contention between TTOR and Conservation this year.
Two weeks ago, TTOR and Conservation said they hope to resolve their problems and “heal” their relationship. Trailhead parking is the topic of a special meeting now scheduled for Tuesday evening.** The outcome has implications for TTOR’s success in front of a third Southborough board this fall, the Planning Board.
Selectmen approved alcohol licenses for Fall Fun events through October 4th. But the October 4th event comes with parking restrictions. Plus, Trustees will need to respond to selectmen if they want to serve alcohol at the remaining five Sunday events scheduled this fall.
Issues between Town officials and TTOR were sparked in March when the Chestnut Hill Farm property owners suddenly announced that parking for trails was closed due to the pandemic.***
Eventually that issue was resolved and parking reopened. But since then other issues popped up over pigs temporarily kept at the farm and a Major Site Plan application in front of Planning. In August, Commissioners noted concern over a pattern of TTOR seeming to push the boundaries of the CR. They worried about the potential erosion of rights.
Below are highlights of issues raised by each board.
Conservation Commision and TTOR
The pig issue was resolved this summer.**** But the Site Plan for a proposed barn to use for events is still in Planning hearings. According to TTOR’s D.A. Hayden, it appears that a letter from Conservation to Planning about the parking could hold up Planning’s approval.
Last month, Commission member Ben Smith told fellow members that TTOR’s Site Plan counted trailhead parking towards the parking required for the new events facility. He said that upon questioning, a TTOR representative told Planning that Conservation had approved the plan.
Smith acknowledged that Conservation had approved the stormwater plan and placement of the barn in relation to wetlands. He followed that they had been “wearing” task specific “hats” when looking at the application. The parking issue hadn’t been flagged. He said he felt “misled”.
Smith asserted that Conservation is responsible for zealously protecting Southborough’s rights under the CR. And he noted that Conservation is required to regulate the CR to the letter. He said it would take a 2/3 Town Meeting vote and act of legislature to remove restrictions from the CR. Fellow members agreed with his assessment. (Though, the Commission’s sentiment that meeting appeared to be partially fueled by a misperception of TTOR’s handling of their instructions over the keeping of pigs.****)
The Commission instructed Conservation Agent Melissa Danza to write a letter to Planning citing the CR’s language on explicit use of the parking area.
In a follow up meeting with TTOR, Smith clarified that he wasn’t accusing them of intentional deceit. But he charged that it was the Trustees’ responsibility as a partner and noted experts on CRs to inform them when there are potential issues.
TTOR’s D.A. Hayden pledged that the Trustees are committed to working with the Commission and preserving public access:
this is also fundamental to our mission. We believe there is more access to the site for visitors to pursue a range of passive recreational and educational opportunities now that is even greater than what the CR protects. Neither of us wants to deny anybody the ability to enjoy the farm. We’re also trying to honor the original intent of the CR and balance some of the other values that are associated with it, including things like protecting the scenic pastoral vistas, resource protection, and carrying on a traditional land use that times to the farming history of the site and the Town of Southborough itself. We’re trying to minimize adding new infrastructure to the site and take advantage of existing features.
Both groups indicated they want to move forward together and heal the previously good relationship.
The issue that Conservation and TTOR still need to address is their differing interpretations of CR language around parking and access. The CR designates the trailhead parking space as explicitly/exclusively for passive recreation and educational activities. Smith argued that events like dinners at the farm don’t fit that bill. Hayden indicated that she believes all of their events fit the definition. (Though, her comments included the descriptor “experiential”.)
The CR also notes that the spot is meant to have 10 spaces. The parking area can fit 24 spaces. Hayden urged Conservation to focus on resolving issues around 10 spaces for trail access. And she urged that quick resolution is needed so they can move forward with their already delayed plans. Smith highlighted that there was some problematic language in the CR which may limit the parking for that area to 10 spaces.
At the end of the September 10th discussion, Conservation agreed to reach out to the Sudbury Valley Trustees for their interpretation as CR experts. Abutter Whitney Beal, who had “a large hand in drafting” the CR made a recommendation. He noted that the when the Maine Coast Heritage Trust runs into CR issues, both parties sit down to work through “gray” areas of the CR, then document the understanding in an agreement that future employees can refer to.
This year, TTOR is due to submit a new management plan for the property to Conservation. In preparation, Danza prepared a draft document to clearly outline activities prohibited under the CR and actions that require advance notice to Conservation. Given the amount of changes at the farm over the past 2-3 years, members discussed potentially changing the timing of Management Plans from 5 years to every 2 years. They may also require updates every 6 months.
The next Planning Board hearing on the barn is scheduled for September 28th.
Selectmen and TTOR
Meanwhile, even without the barn, the TTOR has been holding a slew of events on the site. Most of those don’t require special approvals. But the events that include serving alcohol need signoff by selectmen. On Tuesday night, BOS Chair Marty Healey raised concern over TTOR’s request for a batch of one day alcohol licenses.
At a previous meeting, the Board approved the license for events on September 20th and 27th. The applications cover the remaining Sundays through November 8th from noon to 6:00 pm. Healey referred to it as covering all of the nice Sunday afternoons in the fall.
The Chair said the CR covers access to the property for Southborough residents from dawn to dusk. He didn’t see how “cordoning off” the farm for events allowed for that. He stated that rights get eroded gradually. And he noted that he was glad to see that Conservation was holding TTOR’s “feet to the fire”.
It was an issue for other selectmen as well. Lisa Braccio said she received a few calls from residents about the matter. She wanted to ensure that trailhead parking would be available for residents. The Board agreed to approve the license for the one event that predates their next-scheduled meeting, October 4th. At Braccio’s recommendation, the approval was conditioned on trailhead parking not being used for event attendees.
Before they approve any other licenses, selectmen want the Trustees to answer how access to the property will be maintained for Southborough residents. The next BOS meeting is currently slated for October 6th.
*In 2006, Southborough Town meeting approved funding $4.5 million towards a Conservation Restriction on the 109 acre property. (You can read more details on that at the bottom of a previous post.)
**An agenda was initially posted on Tuesday morning for a meeting tonight. Yesterday, the meeting was postponed to September 9th at 7:00 pm.
***TTOR’s administration stated that the call was made due to the Governor’s State of Emergency orders and concerns over public safety. Conservation, which oversees the CR as the grantee, objected to not being consulted in advance. Members pointed out that the state kept open its trails and public health officials were encouraging the public to pursue passive public recreation like trail walking. TTOR initially denied Conservation’s request to reopen parking. That decision was one that selectmen also publicly objected to.
****In May, the Conservation Commission determined that pigs temporarily penned on the section of the farm where Southborough holds the CR was a violation. TTOR had claimed that the temporary keeping of pigs wasn’t what the CR’s ban on a commercial piggery referred to. They initially asserted that the pigs fell under another section on livestock. The Commission ruled that the pigs needed to be removed within 2 week, or a meeting to dispute the ruling requested within one week.
In August, Commissioner Ben Smith stated that TTOR had essentially ignored that order and kept the pigs at the location until their initial planned removal date of July 1st. Smith publicly apologized for the erroneous statement on September 10th in a meeting with TTOR. He said he had been “given some bad information”. He acknowledged the pigs had been removed the day before the 2 week deadline.