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Farmland is disappearing in Massachusetts. We are losing agricultural lands and farming opportunities at an alarming rate. To try to stem the tide of farmland loss, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) established the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program in 1979. It was a first-in-the-nation model for many other states. The MDAR website states, “the primary purpose of the APR program is to preserve and protect agricultural land, including designated farmland soils, which are a finite natural resource, from being built upon for non-agricultural purposes or used for any activity detrimental to agriculture, and to maintain APR land values at a level that can be supported by the land’s agricultural uses and potential.”
The APR program works by paying farmers the difference between the full market value of their land and the agricultural value of the land. In that way, the landowner retains ownership of the land, but cannot sell the land for anything but agriculture. The program has worked well. It has protected 800 farms and 68,000 acres in Massachusetts.
Westford has followed the state trend. The 2006 Master Plan states, “From 1985 to 1999, Westford experienced the second greatest loss of agricultural land of any town in Massachusetts.” The 2006 Westford Reconnaissance Inventory completed through the Massachusetts Heritage Landscape Inventory Program cited the loss of active farming and the development of agricultural land as “one of Westford’s key planning issues.” In looking at our Open Space Plans, it is evident that since 1957 we have lost over 90% of our farmland. We have only six protected farms left. These farms are protected by Agricultural Preservation Restrictions or Conservation Restrictions. Westford’s Comprehensive Master Plan of 2009 supports residents’ desire to protect agricultural land. On the second page of this 237-page document, the Master Plan sets out its primary objectives under the heading, Community Vision:
“Westford wants to be a community that:
- appreciates its natural resources and open space. Open space acquisition and land use regulation that guide development to areas designated for growth will be Westford’s primary tool for protecting open space and natural resources.”
- celebrates and preserves its heritage. Westford’s agricultural and historic industrial landscapes and its villages will be cherished and protected as irreplaceable public assets.”
In 1999, the purchase for $525,000 by the Town of an APR on the Drew Parcel on Boston Road was completed. Here is what is written in the 1999 Town Report regarding the purchase: “This will assure the preservation of a critical part of the landscape important for maintaining the character of the Town which has been identified by the citizens of the Town as a high priority during the Master Plan update process.” The 2010 Open Space Plan states, “Westford residents place great value on retaining the town’s farming heritage in addition to protecting open space, and the town has successfully preserved several working farms and orchards through agricultural preservation restrictions and municipal purchase.”
Now, a citizens’ petition to be voted on at our March 23 Annual Town Meeting, asks that we give the selectmen the authority to negotiate with a developer to build a large restaurant, parking lot and septic system on one of our protected agricultural parcels at 66-68 Boston Road. Such a development would clearly violate the terms of the perpetual protection for that agricultural land. I urge you to attend Town Meeting at Abbot School on March 23 and vote “No” on Article 16. We must stay vigilant in our determination to protect Westford’s farmland. Its the only farmland we will ever have. –Marian Harman, Westford, Massachusetts