Thumbs down on 2nd land deal; Town shifts right to purchase farm property to AVIS

Andover GIS Map of the 1320 South St. farm that the town declined to purchase last week. AVIS may now purchase the property, outlined in yellow on the map. The highway at the right is Interstate 93. The blue line represents the Shawsheen River. The shaded area is Tewksbury.

Two up, two down.

That’s the record so far of conservation properties considered — and rejected — for purchase by the Board of Selectmen and Conservation Commission following last year’s Town Meeting vote authorizing the spending of $800,000 on open space.

It’s a record that has some people scratching their heads.

“They’ve decided they want to save money,” said John Hess, vice president of the Andover Village Improvement Society, a local land preservation group. “They are not looking at it as an opportunity to save land — they are looking at it to save money.”

Last year, Town Meeting voted by a wide margin to give selectmen and the Conservation Commission authority to use $800,000 in borrowing authority left over from a previous land deal that fell through. 

The warrant article that was approved carried a list of a dozen or so properties that land preservationists had been eyeing for years to secure for recreation and conservation purposes.

Two of those properties have come up to purchase and both have been shot down.

The first was the 8-acre Phillips boathouse property, which the town made a low-ball offer on of around $500,000 after the school had made it clear it wanted at least $1 million for the property. Phillips ended up selling the property for more than $2 million to the Andover Companies, which has its headquarters adjacent to the boathouse land.

The second property on the list was a 20-acre farm at 1320 South St. Last week, selectmen voted to bypass the purchase of the property. Instead, AVIS may now end up with the site although that outcome is by no means certain.

Hess and others blame selectmen for being penny-wise and pound-foolish. But Chairman Dan Kowalski places the blame on Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski and the Conservation Commission.

Kowalski said that shortly after last year’s Town Meeting vote, he asked Stapczynski to provide the board with a process on how to go about assessing properties on the list.

“If there were parcels of land on that list, I asked the town manager to define a list — of vetting those properties, and that was never defined,” he said. “I asked the town manager, I’d like to know, how was the land defined.”

Further, he said, the Conservation Commission needs to prioritize the parcels of property.

“Presently, we don’t have a prioritized list from the Conservation Commission,” he said. “Then they need to work with the Board of Selectmen, who have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure any property is purchased in an appropriate manner.”

The latest deal turned down by selectmen — the 20-acre South Street farm — may still result in the property being saved as open space.

Last Monday night, the Board of Selectmen gave up its right of first refusal to buy the property, granting that right instead to AVIS. The 1320 South St. property is on the market for $637,000.

The town had been eligible to buy the property because the owners had an agricultural exemption placed on it by the town, allowing them to pay less in property taxes over the years because it is considered farmland. 

The owner of the property, Jean Tisbert, has a signed purchase-and-sales agreement with Stoneham developer Alvin Teh for $637,684. Teh apparently wants to build single- or multi-family homes on the land.

AVIS and other land conservation people want to save the property as open space because it sits on the banks of the Shawsheen River and is near other conservation properties.

Susan Stott, a member of the AVIS board of directors, said her organization will be going through a due diligence process before buying the property. The group has until April 22 to come up with the money to purchase it.

“It’s tight, but we think we can get it done,” Stott said, adding that her group may want to sell off the upland part of the property and preserve the portion that is along the river.

One restriction, however, is that 70 percent of the land must remain as protected open space.

Part of the property is under the National Grid power lines. Another part is along the river and is filled with wetlands. A third part of it is developable.

Stott said AVIS would have preferred for the town to have exercised its right of first refusal. She said she doesn’t understand why selectmen and Conservation Commission members didn’t want to buy the property.

“I can’t read their minds,” she said. “They discussed it in executive session and nobody’s talking.”

She agreed with Hess that Town Meeting approved spending money on purchasing open space, but that town leaders don’t appear willing to do that.

“We have a relatively short list of properties we thought were important,” she said. “Voters approved the funding authorization at Town Meeting. I’m surprised two properties on the list came up so quickly. I don’t know why selectmen chose not to buy either of them. I just don’t know. That would be a good question for Dan Kowalski and the rest of the Board of Selectmen. Are there any properties on the list they would support? “

Kowalski countered that it’s not just a decision by selectmen, but that the Conservation Commission also must weigh in.

He noted that Conservation Commission Chairman Don Cooper was in the audience last week when the board was discussing the South Street farm property.

“He made no public comment about this parcel of land,” Kowalski said. 

Cooper could not be reached for comment.

Hess said that as one of the original supporters of last year’s warrant article on the open space fund, he thought “it was clear that Town Meeting said, ‘Put money aside and buy properties when they come up.’ These were two properties on the list, but selectmen disagree. They are looking at the bigger picture of keeping our debt down.

“That doesn’t mean they won’t some time in the future purchase more land for conservation,” he added. “Now they don’t want to. They’d rather the land be used for development or some other purpose.” 

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