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Bridgewater

Council facing land decision

Must vote on purchase of farm

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2011

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A 144-acre swath along the Taunton River, rich in history and natural resources, is up for grabs, and Bridgewater’s Town Council will decide Tuesday whether the cash-strapped town can afford to preserve it or must walk away and allow a developer to build 97 homes there.

On the table is the Childs Bridge Farm off Cherry Street. Charles Perkins bought the land in 1905. It now sits in a trust held by four descendants poised to sell the site for $3.5 million to Angelo D’Emilia, a local businessman and the state representative for the region.

Because Childs Bridge Farm has enjoyed reduced taxes due to its agricultural classification, the town has first crack at purchase but must make its move prior to Oct. 12. D’Emilia has all necessary permits in hand to put a shovel in the ground should the town back away.

The farm’s environmental value is well documented. The state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program lists it as a priority habitat for rare and other species. The Nature Conservancy, an international preservation group, places it among several sites to be protected in the Taunton River Basin. And the town’s open space plan calls the farmland a spot best kept open.

Last week, Bridgewater preservation planner Jennifer Goldson supplied local color for the Community and Economic Development Committee, a panel of three councilors that will make a recommendation on the potential purchase to the full Town Council Tuesday. She said records on the farm go back to the mid-18th century, when the original owner paid “a barrel of rum’’ to reroute old Cherry Street to its present location.

A later owner is recorded as freeing his two slaves when he sold the house in 1777. Slavery in Massachusetts was abolished in the 1780s. The site also shows evidence of a pre-1880s granite quarry, and a trout farm operating until 1900.

The $3.5 million price tag has been considered too rich by some. The Planning Board and Board of Assessors recommend against the purchase. The former noted D’Emilia’s approved plan calls for a cluster development, where houses are set on small lots surrounded by open space.

“It will allow more than half the property to stay open without the town spending a penny,’’ Planning Board chairman Thomas Pratti told the Community and Economic Development Committee, noting 70 acres would be permanently protected.

Town Manager Troy Clarkson also recommended against the purchase, because it would either require a tax increase or further tapping of the community preservation account. Voters will already be asked to increase taxes for a new fire station at some future date, he said, and community preservation revenue is needed to cover renovations to the historic Academy Building.

“It comes down to priorities,’’ Clarkson said.

Meanwhile, the Conservation Commission has unanimously supported the land purchase. “I know the town has to fix the Academy Building, but once the land is developed, it’s gone forever,’’ said commission chairman Richard Monteith.

Town Councilor Peter Colombotos, who chairs the Community and Economic Development Committee, said nobody disputes the property’s value to the town.

“The question is whether we can afford it,’’ he said.

Some financial help may be in the works. One of the four current landowners, Faelton Perkins, recently pledged his share of the sale money - about $630,000 after taxes - toward the town’s purchase of the land.

Goldson said the Nature Conservancy, Wildlands Trust, and state Department of Conservation and Recreation may agree to cover about $875,000. She expected to have more information regarding their commitment by Tuesday’s council vote.

If about $1.5 million were covered by Perkins and the preservation groups, the town’s financial responsibility would drop to $2 million. Financial figures, based on that reduced amount, will be ready for Tuesday’s meeting, officials said.

Town leaders may also be able to extend their decision-making window beyond Oct. 12 by simply putting down $1,000, the same amount D’Emilia put down when he signed the purchase-and-sale agreement with the property’s trustees. The town would then have 90 days to get the money and close the sale, or back out and forfeit the $1,000.

The council is expected to ask the town’s attorney for advice Tuesday regarding the legal ramifications attached to that delaying tactic.

Some neighbors of the farm say they would like to see the subdivision stopped.

Calthrop Road resident Carla Jackson said she is concerned about increased traffic. “Roughly 26 children live on our street,’’ she said. “Most of the new homes would use this road as access.’’

Jackson attended the Community and Economic Development Committee’s discussion last week. “As a community member, I’m glad they’re not making a hasty decision,’’ she said.

Tuesday’s council meeting opens at 7:30 p.m. in the Memorial Building. The Community and Economic Development Committee will meet at 7 p.m. tomorrow in that same building to formalize its recommendation.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.