Needled by community pressure, selectmen voted 4 to 0, Feb. 28, to recommend dismissing two controversial citizen’s petitions for the upcoming annual Town Meeting.
The move marked another twist in an enduring saga. The matter has become an epic cause for a group of preservationists on one side, and a murky dream for a developer on the other.
It was Selectman Chairman Andrea Peraner-Sweet who signaled a shift in sentiment and a desire to slow things down.
“It would be my request to the applicants that they withdraw their articles from this Town Meeting,” she said. “That allows us as a board and as a town to develop and think about a process that we can go through in order to determine what’s going to happen to the future of this property.” Selectman Scott Hazelton was absent from the meeting.
Annual Town Meeting takes place March 25.
While the petition can’t be withdrawn it can be dismissed by any registered voter on Town Meeting floor, leaving Groton Developer Ebrahim Masalehdan mired in uncertainty over what to do with his land.
At stake is a legal restriction established “in perpetuity,” that, if amended, would set a precedent for agriculturally preserved land throughout the state.
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 the late 1990s, 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. The purchase was approved by annual Town Meeting voters in 1996.
The Bohne’s sold the land to Tom Goddard of North Reading who let it fall into disrepair before putting it up for sale around 2014. Masalehdan purchased the property in February 2016 for $650,000, inheriting the restrictions that made the purchase a risk. However, with selectmen’s public support, Masalehdan sought to amend APR#3 at the 2016 annual Town Meeting. He was denied by only five votes. His request is again on the annual Town Meeting warrant, but this time as a citizen’s petition – a measure that, once certified, must be acted upon at Town Meeting and cannot be withdrawn in advance.
The Developer’s Vision
Masalehdan wants to build a 15,000 square foot farm-to-table restaurant with a paved parking area and an upgraded septic system. In addition to Article 19 which seeks to change the definition of agricultural use, Masalehdan is also seeking in Article 20 to authorize selectmen to ask for a state liquor license.
But a group of residents are resisting his commercial concept. They have scoured historic documents, written to John Lebeaux, Commissioner of the Department of Agricultural Resources, and consulted attorneys who specialize in land preservation – all to bolster their argument that “in perpetuity” means forever.
Meanwhile, Masalehdan hired local attorney Paul Alphen who appeared before selectmen Tuesday still seeking to negotiate terms for the land’s future value.
Alphen’s proposal to provide the town with the right of first refusal for seven years after occupancy triggered selectmen’s decision to pull their support from Masalehdan – despite an offer by Masalehdan to pay the town $75,000 toward the $175,000 spent in the late 1990s for APR#3.
“…allowing a restaurant adds a significant amount of value to that property. Seventy-five-thousand dollars for that just doesn’t cut it,” said Selectman Kelly Ross.
“Although it was not entirely unexpected,” Alphen later stated, “it is very disappointing that we have been unable to reach a consensus with the board regarding an appropriate and economically viable use of the property. I have not yet had a chance to discuss the outcome of the meeting with my client but I feel certain that he will wish to continue to pursue his dream.”
Back and Forth
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 two dilapidated greenhouses. Last fall 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.
But nothing Masalehdan does will convince Juliette Mount and Bill Harman that a farm-to-table restaurant belongs on the parcel. Mount and Harman are just two of a growing number in town who are opposed to amending APR#3.
Harman argued that the parcel’s location at 66 Boston Road is outside the commercial area on the other side of Interstate 495 where restaurants are permitted.
“This new proposed restaurant is not in the right zone at all…” he said.
Mount served on a selectmen-appointed 13-member Drew Gardens Task Force last year and emerged from the responsibility believing the restriction should remain – so much so that she organized an informational meeting on a Sunday afternoon on Feb. 26. At least 30 attended to hear Mount and her fellow panelists, Selectman Don Siriani and resident Bill Taffel provide their perspectives.
Mount noted the restricted uses that accompany the APR.
“This restaurant is one of the disallowed uses,” she said. “It is a building that exceeds the footprint of the current building in place. It’s a change in use – going from a farm stand to a restaurant. When there’s a change in use there’s a process that has to be followed to potentially allow the change. But this is a disallowed use in general because of the size and the scope and the asphalt.”
But even expert opinions differ.
In a letter dated Sept. 22, Lebeaux 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.”
On the other hand, in a letter dated Jan. 18 to 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. The opinion by McGregor, a land use expert, was sought by Alphen.
The one thing everyone agrees on is that amending APR#3 would set a precedent in the state.
“To the best of our knowledge the only ‘amendments’ to APRs that have occurred in the past have been corrections to property descriptions,” said Katie Gronendyke, spokesman for the state Department of Agricultural Resources.
Peraner-Sweet summed up the simmering sentiment in the town as she publicly contemplated assembling another task force and seeking additional legal opinion.
“…the one thing we can all agree on is that this is an important parcel to the town and a parcel that many people in town are most interested in whatever happens to it,” she said. “As a starting point I think that that’s something we can all agree on.”