Tensions between TTOR and Town over access to Chestnut Hill Farm; Conservation meeting Tuesday

Above: Town officials noted concern about potential erosion of public parking and access to land at Chestnut Hill Farm, including on Sunday afternoons in the fall. (images from Google Maps and by Beth Melo)

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.

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Tracy Bertonazzi
3 years ago

Please google Edgartown terminates lease with TTOR for Katama Farm. The Trustees are taking advantage of the conservation land they are hired to protect. Sounds like they have their own agenda for the properties they manage.

Tina Hyland
3 years ago

It is very important to leave access to parking available to town residents. The cost of events at the farm is out of reach for many town residents. There are no discounts for families, town residents or seniors making a fall Sunday at the farm unaffordable for many. Since we supported and paid for this through taxes, I suggest the town look into making access more affordable.

Function Barn
3 years ago

Spot on Tracy and Tina. I can see this becoming a wedding factory…one day liquor permits etc. Do we really need a bar to enjoy passive recreation. We buy the conservation rights and and they get a function facility.

3 years ago

I’ve always been a little confused about the Trustees’ role at the Chestnut Hill property, which seems to be ever growing. When I voted in favor of protecting the property from development, I did not know that it would be an active farm with fee incurred events. I just thought it would remain a rural property where residents would be allowed to walk, much like the property on Breakneck Hill.

3 years ago

Didn’t the Town residents PAY the Beale family somewhere in the neighborhood of $5M (that’s FIVE MILLION DOLLARS) so the land would not be developed?

Why are WE, those same taxpayers – who are still paying on the $5M – being nickled & dimed to death by the TTOR, etc. for every event being held there?

How about the TTOR providing activities FREE to Town residents – charge others if needed. WE’VE ALREADY PAID!!!

This is no longer the 1980s – GREED is NOT good!!!

Forrest Musselman
3 years ago

We have unfortunately stayed away from all events here, despite being the perfect type of thing for our young children to enjoy, and such a nice local property. We are consistently turned off by what feel like overpriced experiences. Most of our friends have shared similar feelings.

Actually, I’d be more upset if I paid for a Trustees membership, as it seems to only earn you about a 10% discount most of the time. It is a shame…

Sboro Mom of 2
3 years ago

Anyone who wants to go to Chestnut Hill Farm and enjoy the trails and the sights and sounds of nature can do so, for free, at any point. If The Trustees wants to offer additional programming beyond that, great. As long as they keep the land open and accessible to all (which they’re currently doing), then I don’t see a problem.

another mom
3 years ago
Reply to  Sboro Mom of 2

Well they unilaterally decided to close during the pandemic without consulting the town that they serve. Not sure what gave them the authority to do that with the governor encouraging outdoor activity. Parking lots are filled during the paid events which do not benefit the taxpayers of Southboro who paid for CR.

Sboro Mom of 2
3 years ago
Reply to  another mom

Pretty sure many properties around the state and country did the same thing at the beginning of the pandemic. Mass Audubon did the same, I think. It was for public safety – remember how scary everything was in March and April when we knew very, very little about COVID-19??? No one wanted tons and tons of people all on top of each other, whether that was outside or inside. Why be so upset about a couple of weeks of closure for public safety?

Honestly, I’m not sure why everyone is hating on CHF here. I’m a Trustees member and Sboro resident and go to many CHF events, and the further away parking lot near the trail signage is never full during events. Their events are pretty small outside of one or two bigger festivals each year.

I think everyone needs to get their facts straight and be grateful for this amazing FREE resource in our town!!! Don’t go to the events if you don’t want to – the farm is always open to visit for free and my family takes advantage of that all the time!

Trustee Member / Resident
3 years ago
Reply to  Sboro Mom of 2

As a long time Trustee member and supporter of open space preservation/usage we were deeply concerned with both the decision and process to close at start of quarantine.

1) There was no consultation with town officials prior. It also seems that when issue was brought up there was little effort made to reconcile concerns. I sent my own letter and was met with form like response that did not address any of my concerns.

2) The initial letter mentions dogs as being part of reason for closure. This is not unique to quarantine and should have been addressed with education… not closure.

3) Closing selective open space in a town with an already limited supply creates greater use over a smaller number of sites. Beals and Breakneck became overcrowded which created an even greater health threat and caused a lot of damage at those sites.

4) Not related… but the electric fence ubiquity makes it a parental nightmare. It’s sad that most the “public” space is a hazard to families. The event space conveniently does not have this issue. Can’t get to trails without traversing significant fence line.

I think CHF events are great but the town appears to have limited leverage here and I am concerned with what we have seen so far. I’d love to hear CHF come out with a full throated apology for their stance and commitment to work with the town.

Al Hamilton
3 years ago

Here is the thing that baffles me about the parking situation. The Trustees sign prohibits parking along the road. However, the road and shoulder are not part of the Chestnut Hill Property. The Town of Southborough owns about 20 ft either side of the center line of which includes about 10 feet of shoulder, more than enough to park on.

How can the Trustees make rules for property that is not part of the farm? The BOS certainly could make such rules since this is owned by the Town but the Trustees, in my opinion have no authority to permit or prohibit activity on the town owned shoulder.

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