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Clash of rights

A Berlin couple is working to reshape property as horse farm, but town is rethinking permission amid complaints by neighbors

Maplewood Farm co-owner Tamara Johnston with the new riding arena in the background that is central to a dispute with the town. Maplewood Farm co-owner Tamara Johnston with the new riding arena in the background that is central to a dispute with the town. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / March 11, 2012
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The owners of Maplewood Farm, Tamara and Archibald Johnston, hoped that the tons of dirt they trucked onto their 20-acre property in Berlin would help them realize their dream of raising and training horses. Instead, the dirt has only brought them trouble.

Since November, when Berlin’s building inspector ordered the Johnstons to stop building an indoor riding arena and moving earth around their property, Maplewood Farm has been a source of controversy in one of the most rural towns in the region. At issue is whether the Johnstons were within their rights last year when they rebuilt the arena, cleared trees, and then trucked in fill to make sections of their land suitable for growing hay and pasturing animals.

In August, the family received a building permit to replace their indoor riding arena, which collapsed under last winter’s heavy snows. But the permit didn’t cover the massive project that’s been suspended at the farm, town officials said.

“It got very involved; it’s not just putting up a barn,’’ said Selectwoman Valerie Bradley. “This is a town that used to just have cows and sheep. Now we have stables and riding horses and breeding farms. When something like this’’ happens, she said, “everybody gets up in arms. It has not made for a pleasant time.’’

On Monday at 7:30 p.m. in the Berlin Town Offices, the Zoning Board of Appeals is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Johnstons’ request that officials let them finish their project.

Since the town issued the order to stop work, the Johnstons said, they have been losing money. They are paying off debt from the project but aren’t earning their usual income, because their nearly completed riding arena doesn’t have an occupancy permit. They’ve had to cut back on classes and other training they offer, the Johnstons said. About 17 horses are quartered in the farm’s barn, they added.

“They are basically trying to stop us, put us out of business,’’ said Tamara Johnston. “We have a building we are paying a huge mortgage on. By closing us down in the middle of the winter, all our customers have left.’’

Johnston said she and her husband believed they were acting legally because town bylaws give farmers significant leeway in work they can do on their land without approval.

In October, before the town ordered them to stop, the Johnstons submitted a letter to selectmen from the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, an independent advocacy group, saying their project was acceptable under the town’s zoning laws.

With less agricultural land available, farmers are forced to spend more on improving their fields, the letter said.

“Efforts such as those taking place at Maplewood Farm are increasingly commonplace,’’ wrote the Farm Bureau Federation’s president, Richard Bonanno, in the letter.

Berlin officials admitted that the town has no bylaws prohibiting the Johnstons from bringing tons of soil onto their property. But, the officials said, the truckloads of material drew their attention to the new indoor arena. The arena qualifies as a riding stable, they said, which under agricultural zoning rules requires the family to submit plans to the town for approval.

“Nobody is debating whether she can have a horse farm there,’’ said the Board of Selectmen’s chairman, Thomas Andrew. “She needs a site plan.’’

The Johnstons said they were reluctant to pursue the site plan review process because it would require a public hearing, and provide their neighbors the opportunity to persuade officials to require changes to work they’ve already completed at great cost.

Officials said Maplewood Farm’s neighbors on Ball Hill Road have submitted numerous complaints to the town. Some residents said more than 50 trucks a day were traveling to and from the site, clogging local roads, before the work was stopped, said Bradley. Others complained that the Johnstons had denuded the hilltop.

“Basically they have taken away my privacy,’’ said Tammy Cintolo, whose front yard formerly looked out onto forest but now faces acres of bluish-gray clay, complete with sea shells, that was hauled from a construction site on the Boston waterfront and deposited on the Johnstons’ property. “You just look out at that mess.’’

Town officials have other concerns about Maplewood Farm. The Conservation Commission has ordered the Johnstons to move fill away from a stream that runs through the property. The commission also ordered them to dig retention ponds to capture silt that was draining into North Brook. They’re finishing both jobs now, they said.

“The stuff was just washing down the hill,’’ said Walter Bickford, a Conservation Commission member, who added that the Johnstons should have notified the town commission before they began work near wetlands.

The Board of Health has also ordered the Johnstons to inspect their septic system. An inspection was never done when the family purchased the property in 2001, said the board’s chairman, Paul Mikelk.

Officials were also alarmed that the Johnstons had partnered with Santo Anza, a Northborough farmer, on the project. In December, a Worcester County grand jury indicted Anza on charges of cruelty to animals and operating an illegal dump on his Whitney Street property in Northborough, according to a statement from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office. The charges were filed after Anza’s neighbors complained of sickening smells coming from his property, the statement said. The case has yet to go to trial.

The Johnstons have since fired Anza, who they said first gave them the idea of using fill to expand their operation. They met him through other farmers, the Johnstons said; while he is now a friend, they said, they have no other business connections with him.

The Johnstons also said that Anza gave them the soil for free, a detail that led Andrew to question Anza’s motivations for suggesting they take the material.

“The whole purpose of this project might be a place to dump fill,’’ said Andrew.

Anza could not be reached for comment.

Fearing the fill was contaminated, selectmen asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to test it; inspectors found no toxic material, said agency spokesman Joseph Ferson.

Cintolo, the neighbor, is unconvinced.

“They only did surface testing,’’ she said. “They didn’t do any core samples. There’s no way they could have tested that whole site. They need to do further sampling. Some of those piles out back are more than 10 feet high.’’

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