Westford building plan tests farmland protection law

The Boston Globe | By Sacha Pfeiffer
September 3, 2016

WESTFORD — Like many other once-rural communities that have been steadily paved over to make way for houses, this former farming town was trying to preserve its dwindling agricultural heritage when it permanently protected a 9-acre fruit orchard two decades ago.

It did so by spending more than a half-million dollars on so-called agricultural preservation restrictions, which declared that the land “shall remain in active agricultural use . . . in perpetuity.”

But the definitions of “agricultural” and “perpetuity” are now up for debate in Westford, alarming open-space advocates across the state who see the possibility of a barn-door-sized breach in Massachusetts’ first-in-the-nation farmland conservation program.

Westford is weighing whether to allow a large restaurant, banquet hall, and parking lot on the property, which has fallen into disrepair. The developer has a novel argument for why that would not violate the site’s protected status: The “farm-to-table” eatery would serve produce grown on the property, making it a legitimate “agricultural use” of the land, he says.

The proposal has infuriated some residents and others who fear making such an exception would raise doubts about whether spending taxpayer money to save farms truly guarantees permanent preservation. They also worry it could unravel other land protection deals covering tens of thousands of acres statewide.

The Westford case “has the potential of reducing confidence in the whole system” if the town allows commercial development on a site intended to be farmland forever, said William “Buzz” Constable, a lawyer who works with land trusts and is president of the Lincoln Land Conservation Trust, a local preservation group.

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