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Special bequest

A 300-year-old will left by a Colonial governor may restrict what Milton selectmen can do with a historic 34-acre plot

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / March 24, 2011

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MILTON — What would Colonial Governor William Stoughton do?

That’s the question Milton selectmen are asking themselves as they consider what to do with land Stoughton left to the town in 1701 “for the use and benefit of the poor.’’

The board is in the unusual position of considering the wishes of a long-dead public figure — who gained notoriety for presiding over the Salem witch trials — because Stoughton’s will named them trustees of the property, known as the Poor Farm.

Selectmen in the 1700s allowed the poor to cut wood on the land, and built a “poor house’’ on the site in the 1800s. By the 1940s, the town was out of the poor house business, instead renting out three buildings on the site and using the income to help needy individuals with emergencies — in small grants totaling about $20,000 annually in recent years.

But two of the 19th-century buildings are too dilapidated to rent anymore, the barn is falling down, and requests for emergency aid are up, officials said. And the selectmen have said they don’t want to dip into the $400,000 accumulated over the years in the Governor Stoughton fund.

So they are considering selling or leasing the inheritance — 34 acres of woods and fields abutting the Blue Hills Reservation — which has been appraised at anywhere from $3.4 million to $8.5 million, depending on the final use.

“It’s all about the Benjamins,’’ said town planner William Clark. He said whatever the selectmen decide must be approved, however, by the state attorney general and Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, to be sure Stoughton’s will is honored.

“It’s hard to know how [Stoughton] really expected them to use that land,’’ said John Cronin, a former town administrator and local history buff.

“There has to be a benefit to the poor, but it isn’t a slam-dunk that the selectmen are dealing with. They’re really laboring with the correct way of discharging their responsibility,’’ he said.

Those interested in the property have until tomorrow to submit a proposal. Selectmen expect to make a decision by late April.

Ten groups have met with town officials to learn more; most represented developers or affordable-housing advocates. A local resident said last year that he was interested in the property for an agricultural school program.

The philanthropic Copeland Foundation also is part of the mix. The foundation bought land from the town about five years ago to keep it from being developed, on the condition that the town use the $2 million sale money for supplies at Milton High School.

Selectmen started looking at the future of the Governor Stoughton property more than 10 years ago, when it was briefly considered as a possible site for a new school, said Town Administrator Kevin Mearn.

Then in 2008, selectmen appointed a committee, which studied potential uses of the property for two years. The committee recommended that the selectmen preserve the historic site and create a $5 million endowment to continue helping the poor in town.

The report didn’t say where the money would come from, though, beyond saying that possible sources were private donations, municipal taxes, or development of the land.

Among the development possibilities under consideration at that time were proposals to build from 88 to 288 units of market-rate and affordable housing at the site. That created an uproar, with both negative and positive reactions, and spawned two grass-roots organizations with opposite agendas and the confusing names of “Milton Friends of Town Farm’’ and “Friends of Town Farm.’’

Marion McEttrick, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, said the board recognizes the strong feelings associated with the site.

Another complicating factor is that the Milton Animal Shelter is based there. The Milton Animal League is raising money to build a new facility on town-owned land, but is about $1 million short of its $1.5 million goal, said its president, Nancy Bersani.

“The benefit of the poor of Milton has to be first and foremost,’’ McEttrick said.

She said a social worker helps the town identify people who need help, with money going for expenses such as home heating bills or late mortgage payments.

“They tend to be rather tragic cases,’’ she said. “Say an elderly grandmother caring for her grandchildren is seriously ill and needs to relocate where there is more family to take care of the children when she is gone. That’s the sort of problem we can help with’’ by paying for moving costs.

But the selectmen also need to consider what is good for the town when deciding the fate of the Poor Farm, she said.

“We’re concerned about the impact on the value of property around the site and very concerned about the impact on town services,’’ she said. “I hope there is something [proposed] that we feel is good enough to do. But we don’t have to pick something.’’

Selectman Robert Sweeney, who cochaired the committee that studied the Poor Farm, said he’s hoping its historic structures can be preserved. While many communities had poor farms, few survive, he said.

“It’s a rare property because it’s remained relatively intact,’’ he said.

The original Poor House, or almshouse, was built around 1805, and included cages to punish residents who disturbed the peace, according to a history compiled by the town. Paupers lived and farmed there, and the able-bodied men worked on the town’s roads.

That building was sold for $102 in 1854. A new Poor House was built for $2,675 on the spot where it still stands today. Also remaining are the 1871 Men’s Almshouse and 1888 Pest House, built to quarantine people with smallpox. The 1882 stable is still there, propped up by wooden supports.

The original property was 40 acres, but the state took 6 acres in 1896 for inclusion in the Blue Hills Reservation.

“It’s a nice spot tucked away up there, but those buildings have been allowed to deteriorate,’’ said Town Clerk James Mullen. “It’s kind of a forgotten place.’’

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.

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