UPDATED – A controversial land matter is resurfacing as annual Town Meeting approaches.
The attorney representing the company of Groton developer Ebrahim Masalehdan filed two citizen’s petitions on Jan. 17 regarding a parcel known as “Drew Gardens.”
The petitions are slated to be decided on March 25 at the annual meeting.
Attorney Paul Alphen is seeking to amend a portion of the 9-acre parcel so that Masalehdan can build a restaurant there. The building would measure approximately 15,000 square feet, downsized from plans for an approximate 20,000 square foot building.
This will be the second time Masalehdan asks voters to amend an Agricultural Preservation Restriction on the land. His first request was denied 106 to 101 at the 2016 annual Town Meeting in April.
Each APR is approximately 3 acres. Masalehdan is seeking to amend APR #3 which he earmarked as the site of his restaurant and parking area. His company is Westford Gateway, LLC.
History of the 9-acre Parcel
The APRs were purchased by the town for $525,000 from resident Keith Bohne between 1997 and 1999. Bohne, who ran a garden center on the property, sold it to Tom Goddard of North Reading in 2001. Goddard, too, ran a garden center on the property for years. But more recently, he ceased the operation and put the parcel up for sale, allowing it to fall into disrepair with two caved in green houses, a dilapidated store building, and overgrown shrubs and weeds. For a period in 2014, Goddard was using the land to store mountains of compost creating an eyesore for motorists and neighbors and raising the ire of town officials. The officials requested an injunction from Lowell Superior Court to have the piles removed.
After town officials waived their right of first refusal to purchase the land, Masalehdan bought the property in February for $650,000, proposing to build a farm-to-table restaurant. He removed much of the debris as well as the sagging greenhouses. He also added 700 yards of loam, according to Alphen.
In a letter dated Jan. 12, Alphen noted the revised plans call for a footprint of 8,130 square feet and total square footage of about 15,000. The number of seats and parking spaces were not specified.
Last spring Masalehdan sought approval for a footprint of 11,336 square feet with 305 seats and 134 parking spaces. With a second floor and proposed banquet hall, the total square footage would have been almost 20,000.
Alphen asked selectmen to place his two petitions on the warrant or to at least add place savers. But in a letter dated Jan. 18 to Selectman Chairman Andrea Peraner-Sweet and Town Manager Jodi Ross, Attorney Gregor McGregor argued that selectmen are the sole administrators and enforcers of the restrictions and an amendment does not require a Town Meeting vote.
McGregor’s opinion was sought by Alphen. McGregor based his opinion primarily on the following section of the APR: “This Agricultural Preservation Restriction shall be administered on behalf of the Grantees by the Town of Westford Board of Selectmen. This restriction shall be enforced by the Grantees as they in their sole discretion may decide.”
“The Westford Board of Selectmen have in the wording of APR 3 itself the independent discretion and authority to allow a non-agricultural project to go forward on APR 3 if they, the Grantees, believe that the proposed project furthers the overarching purposes of the restriction,” McGregor wrote in his letter.
Leading the opposition to Masalehdan’s goal are conservationists Bill and Marian Harman, honorary directors of the Westford Conservation Trust. The couple and their allies, including at least three former selectmen, have argued that the language of the APRs specifies the land is to be preserved “in perpetuity.”
In a letter to the editor dated Jan. 26, Marian Harman wrote, “This matter was already voted on at the 2016 annual Town Meeting, and failed. Why is it coming back for another try?…The land has an Agricultural Preservation Restriction on it, similar to a Conservation Restriction, which means that only agriculture is allowed there in perpetuity. Furthermore, the land is in a residential zone. A large retail business, such as the proposed restaurant is not allowed on this parcel.”
This fall, Bill Harman told WestfordCAT that the restaurant would never get built.
“I predict there’s no possibility of a restaurant,” he said. “Now now or in the spring…I think it’s dead. It just may take a little time for the selectmen to realize that.”
Follow Joyce Pellino Crane on Twitter @joypellinocrane.
Updated on Jan. 25, 2017; A line in the story that said a two-thirds vote would be required for the citizen’s petition to pass was deleted. A majority vote is needed, according to town officials. A line that said “if selectmen approved,” was deleted. A certified citizen’s petition must be placed on the Town Meeting warrant. The article was again updated on Jan. 26 to add a quote from Marian Harman.