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The simmering acrimony between a developer and a resident surfaced in the public eye this week.
At the April 10 selectmen’s meeting developer Ebrahim Masalehdan and resident Juliette Mount took aim at each other over a 9-acre parcel owned by Masalehdan at 66 Boston Road. [Continue below]
The face-off brings to a head a polarizing issue over land preservation versus development for income.
Masalehdan purchased the land with the intention of building a farm-to-table restaurant with a parking area. The original plan, now downgraded, included a banquet hall. Mount lives on Boston Road across from the land.
Known colloquially as Drew Gardens, the 9-acre gateway parcel holds three Agricultural Preservation Restrictions of 3 acres each, called APR #1, #2, and #3. In 1997 and 1999, the town paid owners Keith and Nanci Bohne $525,000 for the development rights, the right of first refusal, and the guarantee of perpetual preservation as agricultural land.
Experts disagree over whether the restrictions can be amended. In a September 2016 letter, John Lebeaux, Commissioner of the Department of Agricultural Resources, said the proposal, “to convert almost the entire three acres of land restricted by APR#3 into a restaurant and banquet facility, with an associated parking lot, contravenes the statutory language and is prohibited by the terms of the Department approved APR3 as it is not an agricultural use.”
But in January 2017, Attorney Gregor McGregor, a land use expert, argued that selectmen are the sole administrators and enforcers of the restrictions and an amendment does not require a Town Meeting vote.
Masalehdan appeared before selectmen on April 10 at the invitation of Town Manager Jodi Ross who requested an update on the property, which had fallen into disrepair through the years.
The Bohne’s sold the land to Tom Goddard of North Reading who put it up for sale around 2014. Goddard stopped using the property as a retail garden center and wild bird center, and was no longer maintaining the property. Heaps of compost piles began appearing to such an extent that in May 2014 the town issued a cease and desist order to Goddard.
Masalehdan purchased the property in February 2016 for $650,000, inheriting the restrictions that made the purchase a risk. Despite selectmen’s public support, Masalehdan sought and failed to amend APR#3 at the 2016 and 2017 annual Town Meetings.
Between 2016, when Masalehdan’s article lost by only five votes, and 2017 when it lost by 236 votes, a group of conservationists rallied, stressing the restrictions were meant to last “in perpetuity,” as written in the documents, and winning a burgeoning number of residents to their side. At the time, Mount took a leadership role in opposing Masaledhan’s plan.
At the selectmen’s meeting this week, Masalahden reiterated his hope to build a restaurant on APR #3 and to farm the other two restricted plots. Referencing McGregor’s letter, he reminded selectmen of their alleged authority.
“Apparently you had received the letter from Mr. McGregor in Boston that selectmen have the ultimate authority to amend (the) APR and I’m hoping you guys will do the right thing and try to work with me and try to amend the APR. Allow me to put the restaurant in there,” he said.
Mount was ready with a written response, urging selectmen to declare the existing farm stand building as abandoned, and the property, a nuisance.
“This is a highly visible property in a residential area, and due to neglect, the property qualifies as a public nuisance in its current state,” Mount said. “…It’s time that we take action regarding this property.”
Since purchasing the property, Masalehdan has removed compost piles the size of small hills left behind by Goddard. He has hired a demolition company to rid the property of one of two dilapidated greenhouses. In 2017 he rented several goats to clean up the flora overgrowth and brought in loam to cover the ground – all in an effort to meet demands made by selectmen and residents that the property be returned to a state of attractiveness worthy of its gateway location. A small, rustic farm stand remains on the land and a greenhouse with glass panels broken by heavy snows is attached.
Mount called for the building to be restored or “cleaned up.” She asked selectmen to impose fines on Masalehdan if he didn’t immediately improve the property.
Resisting Selectman Chairman Scott Hazelton’s caution, Masalehdan came out fighting.
“I met her in her house two years ago and she was all upset she was going to see the restaurant,” Masalehdan said of Mount.
Then, referring to his Town Meeting article, Masaledhan added, “…she asked me to put up a stone wall on her property, bring in truckloads of loam to elevate her property, and landscape her whole house, she would vote for me…and get all her neighbors to vote for me…”
“I never said that,” said Mount.
Hazelton and Selectman Mark Kost declined to declare the property a nuisance. Selectman Elizabeth Almeida advised Masaledhan to satisfy the complex legal roadblocks of amending an APR. Selectman Tom Clay advised Masalehdan to build consensus before going back to Town Meeting.
“The voters have taken a position on this and I don’t think there’s a way forward except ultimately to go back to them again and ask them if with the new information they changed their position,” said Clay.
Resident Diane Hendriks, who lives near Drew Gardens, expressed a concern.
“The development rights and the APR are worth millions of dollars…if the proper channels go through and that land is released, he needs to pay market value for it,” she said.
“If the land was worth millions, why didn’t anybody buy it before I bought it?” said Masalehdan.
The comment put an end to the discussion.
“We’re done here,” said Selectman Andrea Peraner-Sweet.
“I would suggest that patience is not eternal and it is time to think about what is a workable plan for the site,” said Hazelton.