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TPL makes $19.4 million effort to purchase Groton land

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GROTON — If a group of national and local conservation organizations can reach a deal, the town may be the beneficiary of a massive land purchase that could see one of the last major pieces of open space in Groton preserved from development.

After months of secret negotiations between the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit conservation organization, and the owners of the former Surrenden Farm property off Farmers Row and Shirley Road, a deal has been struck to sell the land for $19.4 million.

If efforts to purchase the land are successful, the town will see the transfer of 360 acres of pasture, orchards and riverfront woodland forming connections with other parcels making up the patchwork of open space that currently exists in Groton.

“These properties contain a rich diversity of river frontage, contiguous forest and open fields,” said Groton Conservation Trust President Ed McNierney. “As we’ve seen in the past, the town of Groton cares deeply about these landscapes. This project is worthy of our best efforts to protect it for further generations. TPL is a key partner in making this complex project possible, and we’re grateful for their participation and assistance.”

The TPL has had a history of working with local communities to help them preserve valued open space. It recently joined Westford and Pepperell on conservation projects such as the preservation of the 265-acre Pepperell Springs project and the 286-acre East Boston Camps property in Westford. Each required years of collaborative effort among the two towns and local land trusts.

TPL has been working behind the scenes to broker a deal on the Surrenden Farm property for some time, said Board of Selectmen (BOS) Chairman George (Fran) Dillon.

“TPL has been working on this since the middle of last year,” said Dillon. “There have been negotiations between TPL, the developer and the trust because TPL was the one who negotiated the whole deal.”

The deal involves the Marion Danielson Strachan Family Trust and the Marion D. Campbell Trust, owners of the property that have given TPL one year to raise $19.4 million in order to buy the land.

“The trustees of (The) Groton School recognize this as an important collaboration between the town and the school,” said The Groton School headmaster Richard Commons. “If the town wants to protect this land, they can count on the school as a solid partner. Our commitment reflects our strong belief in this project as important not only to the school, but to the Groton community as a whole. We feel a responsibility to take a leadership role.”

Of the 360 acres to be purchased, a portion of it is directly adjacent to property belonging to The Groton School.

If TPL decides there is enough support in the town for purchasing the property, it will make its deposit holding the land through the end of 2006 to give organizers time to arrange for the balance of the payment.

One possible source of public funding is money raised through the town’s adoption of the Community Preservation Act (CPA). It adds a surcharge on property taxes earmarked for the purchase of open space, the creation of affordable housing and historical preservation.

“There’s a lot of work to do between now and town meeting. This is a very expensive proposition no matter how good a deal it is, but many of us on the CPC feel that providing a funding source to capitalize on this type of opportunity is precisely why Groton residents voted to enact the Community Preservation Act,” said CPC Chairman Richard Hughson. “The town has the potential to use its CPA dollars to leverage about 75 percent of the property’s value from other non-town sources.”

Also part of the purchase price equation is the existence of a number of homes on the property that could be sold to raise money for the project.

A portion of the Surrenden Farm property has been the object of contention for months between the town’s Board of Health (BOH) and developer Farmers Row Realty, which finally won approval from the board for a 130-unit subdivision it had planned to build on a former orchard.

After years of pesticide use on the farm, much of the land had been contaminated and needed to be remediated before any construction could be permitted at the site. An agreement was finally reached between the BOH and the developer last September, but apparently Farmers Realty Trust decided not to pursue its construction plans.

In the meantime however, TPL and the town intend to move forward on the purchase with all deliberate speed.

“TPL is going to be working with the town, the Conservation Trust, the Community Preservation Committee and with the Groton school,” said Dillon.

“There are discussions taking place with the TPL and the CPC and the Conservation Trust are taking due diligence,” he said. “The next significant event is that TPL has until March 1 to assess the overall possibilities of making the whole thing work.”