Board OKs buying development rights

HOLLIS – An “underground movement” is one step closer to becoming a reality in town, thanks to a stamp of approval from the Board of Selectmen on Monday night.

The “underground movement” in question – growing organic produce at a proposed Hollis Community Farm, a community-supported agriculture project modeled after the Temple-Wilton Community Farm.

Resident Richard Kalin, a member of the TWCF, is the original champion of the undertaking. His house sits across from the 21 fertile acres on Federal Hill Road, known locally as Peacock Orchard.

Peacock Orchard was formerly operated by the owners of Woodmont Orchard. It was up for sale last year when Kalin put down thousands of dollars of his money to enter into a purchase-and-sale agreement in hopes of turning the tract into a community farm for the town.

He envisioned a farm where families paid a yearly subscription to cover farming costs in return for fresh, organically grown produce.

Kalin said organic farmers have estimated the land could support about 150 families. The town would own the development rights to the property, with the Hollis Community Farm acting as a nonprofit organization to own and operate the farm.

The problem was the land was listed at $600,000. The Conservation Commission had originally said it would only guarantee the $160,000 toward the development rights until Dec. 31, meaning Kalin and other potential members would have to hustle to raise private donations.

If the town did not purchase the development rights, it would cause the value of the land to rise from approximately $1,500 an acre to $30,000 an acre, making it impossible to purchase and maintain as farmland. The development rights alone would have cost $613,000 according to appraisers.

It’s possible that the project could qualify for a $100,000 federal Farmland Protection Program grant, but that still left thousands of dollars to be raised before Dec. 31. Abutters pledged $240,000, still leaving Kalin and friends $100,000 from their goal.

So, potential member Toby Tarnow addressed 75 letters to local residents, asking them to help make up the missing funds. So far, an additional $53,000 has been raised.

Now that selectmen have given the Conservation Commission the go-ahead to spend $160,000 for the development rights, it looks as if there’s still time to raise the remaining money before Kalin’s purchase-and-sale agreement expires on April 15.

Selectmen voted 4-1, with Vahrij Manoukian in opposition, to allow the Conservation Commission to spend the $160,000 with three conditions – the land must be deemed environmentally clean, remaining funds must be raised by the expiration of the purchase-and-sale agreement and public access is granted to parts of the property during nonfarming season.

Selectmen said the project would benefit the town and prevent the land from being developed.

Manoukian cited concerns about the safety of the parcel as farmland and cited questions about private interests as his reasons for opposing the project. If the project is to move forward, a public hearing would be held.