Open Space Acquisition Process Must be Shorter and More Certain

While we are very excited to see the Angino Farm acquisition move forward, there have been some unexpected bumps in the road. This is the third time we have partnered with the city to acquire open space using Community Preservation Funds, and each time the rules laid down by the city have been slightly different. We hope to continue working with the Community Preservation Committee, the Board of Aldermen and the city administration to acquire open space parcels as they become available, but we believe that greater predictability in the process is imperative if we are to work successfully with landowners.

The primary issue involves the development of conservation restrictions (CRs) as required by the Community Preservation Act. Any property purchased with CPA funds for open space must be owned by the city and must be protected by a CR held by an organization qualified to do so. As the only local organization formed as a land trust, the Newton Conservators is the most likely holder of these CRs. We currently hold the CR for the Wilmerding property (addition to Cohen Conservation Area) purchased last year with CPA funds, and we anticipate holding CRs on the Forte property (addition to Dolan Pond Conservation Area) and Kesseler Woods, both of which were acquired with CPA funds, once those restrictions are finalized.

In two of these three transactions, the acquisition was closed without the CR having been finalized. Bringing a CR to the point of final agreement is a long and complex process involving the city law department, the city agency or board who will ultimately have jurisdiction over the land (usually the Conservation Commission), the Mayor, the Board of Aldermen and the state Department of Environmental Peotection, in addition to the Conservators (or other outside holder of the restriction). Each of these authorities must sign off on the CR and if there are changes made by one along the way, the others must agree, even though they may previously have signed off. In the Wilmerding case, that process took over a year to complete. CRs for the Forte property and Kesseler Woods are still in development, with no scheduled date for completion.

With this background, it is easy to understand our concern when the city law department determined that the CR on Angino Farm would need to be finalized before the acquisition of the property could close. Our agreement with the Angino family, based on our experience in working with the Forte family and the Kesseler Woods transaction, assumed that the sale would be completed in March 2005, independent of the CR approval process. The most optimistic timetable for finalizing a CR for Angino Farm put the closing closer to June.

Some compromises have been worked out and we now expect the purchase of the farm to be completed no later than May, but it is clear from this experience that the rules of engagement need to be standardized and clearly understood by all parties from an early point in the process. Otherwise, our credibility as well as that of the city is at stake and the success of our efforts is put at risk.

The Conservators seek the shortest possible route to approval and funding of CPA projects. It asks a great deal of a landowner to wait a year to complete a purchase. It asks a great deal of the Aldermen, city officials, and the Conservators ourselves to carry a proposal through multiple committees and meetings. The Conservators and a group of farm advocates turned out in large numbers on many evenings over the course of nine months when the proposal was before the Community Preservation Committee and then the Board of Aldermen. The process IS shorter in many communities. The potential downside to Newton ’s process is that worthwhile projects and acquisitions may not happen because property owners will simply not want to endure the wait.

Our hope early on was that farming at Angino would begin this coming summer. Because of the various organizational steps that are required before a farm operator can be chosen, it appears that real, hands-on farming may not take place for another year. A community farm group has formed and is anxious to move forward. We all need to exercise patience—the process takes time. But, with luck, we will be rewarded. Not too long from now, we will again see agriculture at Angino Farm.

Eric Reenstierna
February 2005