Westford Town Meeting Voters to Decide Two Petitions on Drew Gardens; March 23

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The vacant farm stand at Drew Gardens, 66 Boston Road. PHOTO BY PATTY STOCKER

As annual Town Meeting approaches, opponents and proponents of a proposed farm-to-table restaurant on a 9-acre gateway parcel are lining up for a fight. But one resident says he’s just watching out for the town’s piggy bank.

The gateway parcel at 66-68 Boston Road, 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.

Voters will be asked to make two decisions about the parcel, known colloquially as Drew Gardens. Article 16, filed by residents Tom Barry and Bill Nussbum, asks voters to amend an Agricultural Preservation Restriction on APR#3. The purpose would be to allow Developer Ebrahim Masalehdan to build a 13,696 square-foot restaurant there and grow produce on the remaining 6 acres. An APR is a conservation restriction created to protect farmland.

Article 17, filed by resident Bill Taffel, is designed to prevent town officials from undervaluing the land. Taffel wants officials to assess value to the parcel’s development rights which it owns along with the APRs and the right of first refusal.

The broken-down greenhouse at Drew Gardens. PHOTO BY PATTY STOCKER

“If you amend the APR to allow a restaurant to be built on the property, what’s left?” Taffel said. “One APR is essentially given up. The second question is,‘does the value of the other two APRs go up?’”

The answer is yes, according to Taffel, who wants the parcel assessed. The $650K Masalehdan paid for the land in 2016, would be deducted from the value of the development rights and charged to Masalehdan.

The town’s principal assessor, Jean-Paul Plouffe, valued the 9 acres at $719,600 were they not restricted. The 2 acres containing a building and attached greenhouse is worth $649,900, Plouffe stated.

The property has been at the center of controversy since 2016 when Masalehdan of Westford Gateway, LLC, purchased it with the intent of constructing a farm-to-table restaurant and parking area. At the time Masalehdan also wanted to build a function hall on the property. At the 2016 annual Town Meeting, he sought voter approval to amend one of three Agricultural Preservation Restrictions on a section of the land. He lost by 5 votes.

Amid growing opposition from the town’s land conservationists, Masalehdan, of Groton, brought back plans for a scaled down restaurant to the 2017 annual Town Meeting. He lost. The votes came in at 226 to 462.

Saddled with a parcel that cannot be developed, Masalehdan sought help. He found it in supporters Barry and Nussbum who filed a citizen’s petition for the upcoming March 23 annual Town Meeting that would authorize selectmen to amend the APR. Under Article 16, the amendment would permit the construction and operation of a restaurant with a footprint of 8,130 square feet.

Bill Taffel and Joyce Pellino Crane. WESTFORDCAT PHOTO

Taffel argued that a 9-acre parcel near Interstate 495 would be worth around $3 million overnight in today’s market if the town relaxes its restrictions.

“If the town gives away the developer’s rights to Masalehdan, it should be paid the difference of $2.350 million,” he said, stressing he didn’t know the actual value of the land.

Article 17 “is not about this specific restaurant proposal, the land owner or whether a restaurant is a good idea,” said Taffel. “It’s about making sure that the town protects its investment.”

Barry, on the other hand, said he doesn’t understand Taffel’s campaign, stressing that Masalehdan isn’t trying to release the APR, but amend it under Article 16, so that he can build his restaurant.

“This is strictly an amendment that the Board of Selectmen can do,” Barry said. “APR#2 and #3 would be fully planted.” As proof, Barry points to the 150 fruit trees Masalehdan just purchased for spring plantings.

“Ebi’s vision is to build a beautiful restaurant,” he said.

Opponents to the restaurant voice concern that Masaledhan will build a restaurant and then turn around and sell it for millions of dollars.

“That can’t happen,” said Barry. The land would be returned to the care and custody of selectmen who would stipulate the conditions of a sale, he added.

Once built, the restaurant could bring in annual property taxes of around $50K, said Barry, “plus meals taxes and personal property taxes.”

In addition Masalehdan will reimburse the town for the $175K it spent to purchase the APR, plus he will give the town another $107K for the cost of inflation over the past 20 years. Masalehdan wants the funds to help with Forge Pond beach improvements and the maintenance of East Boston Camps, a pristine, 287-acre parcel off Depot Street.

With two petitions to be decided on the same parcel of land, one might expect those for and those against to be bracing for a fight. But Taffel sums up the situation with only a few words.

Referring to Barry’s petition, Taffel said, “My proposal is not necessarily to oppose his proposal.