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Deadline looms for saving meadow

Groups pressing to raise final $60k

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / September 8, 2011

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Representing the area’s first settlement, Newbury’s historic and pastoral lower green has remained largely undisturbed for nearly four centuries - and if a lengthy and aggressive campaign with an end-of-September deadline is successful, it may forever stay that way.

For more than 17 months, preservation-focused residents and the Essex County Greenbelt Association have worked to raise $500,000 to purchase a 3.9-acre meadow just adjacent to the green that would permanently buffer the key piece of local history from development.

In early 2010, Greenbelt and the community group Save the Lower Green entered into an 18-month, $500,000 option with landowner Sadru Hemani of Newburyport; they have until Sept. 30 to come up with the funds.

As of Sept. 2, the campaign had raised $440,000 through events, private donations, and some grants.

Now, there’s just $60,000 left to go.

But supporters aren’t slowing down - and they also aren’t eluding the consequences if they ultimately can’t come up with the money.

“If we are not successful and this open land is lost to modern housing, it will be lost forever,’’ said Lon Hachmeister, a retired oceanographer and Newbury resident who cochairs Save the Lower Green.

This is because Hemani, who runs a medical practice in Newburyport, has subdivided eight of the roughly 12 acres next to the green that he owns.

Adding an air of immediacy to the preservation campaign, he has preliminary approval from the town’s planning board to create three house lots on the additional four acres of meadow now under agreement.

Still, he’s been supportive of the campaign, offering up the land, as he explained it, at roughly 50 percent of its value.

“It’s a beautiful area; I would hate to see it being developed myself,’’ he said.

But he also stressed that he’s owned the property for decades, and will move forward with his plans to subdivide and develop it if preservationists can’t come up with the funds.

If the effort is ultimately successful, though, Greenbelt will own the land as an open space and conservation asset, and it will be managed as open field pastureland. The meadow forms a backdrop to the historic green.

To that end, efforts over the past near year and a half have included a pumpkin festival, an art sale, tag sales, house parties, and many meetings and solicitations.

Late in the summer, the campaign was widened, with pleas for support mailed to 10,000 residents in not only Newbury, but Newburyport, West Newbury and Rowley, according to Ed Becker, Greenbelt’s executive director.

The campaign got an additional boost from Preservation Massachusetts last year: The nonprofit named the green one of the state’s most endangered historic resources.

“It’s getting a lot of support. That’s what’s been encouraging,’’ said Becker. “It’s a broad community effort, which gives us confidence that we’re going to be able to close out this campaign.’’

The final few weeks will mean vigorous continuation of ongoing initiatives, he said; the land conservation entity and the community group will continue reaching out to individual donors, and they are likewise hopeful about a few pending grant applications. On Tuesday night, the committee will also host a reception at the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, according to Hachmeister.

The core of support has come from people closest to the property, Becker noted - but there have been at least a couple donations from out of state.

Hachmeister described “hundreds and hundreds’’ of gifts ranging from $5 to tens of thousands of dollars - and it’s no mystery to him why support has been so widespread.

“People in our community have deep feelings for its historic past and are very preservation-oriented,’’ he said. “After all, the lower green is where it all started.’’

Indeed, the pastoral patch of green is where the town was first established, and where settlers set up temporary structures after paddling up the Parker River more than 375 years ago. Later, it also served as a camping spot for Benedict Arnold’s men during the march to Quebec City in 1775; and early presidents, including George Washington and James Monroe, took in its scenery, according to the research of Save the Lower Green.

Meanwhile, much of the area around it is on the National Register of Historic Places, with the Seddon Tavern, the 1715 Dole-Little House, the circa-1800 Newman House, and the First Burial Ground all in the vicinity.

As Becker noted, it’s a piece of history that people have enjoyed - but until now, perhaps have taken for granted.

“It’s an iconic viewshed, a property that so many people have known and seen for many, many years,’’ he said, “but have not realized it was at risk.’’

For more information, visit www.ecga.org/lowergreen.html