AYER — Interested in creating greater cooperation and communication among the town’s land-use boards and public recreation and private environmental groups, officials and residents have come together to inspire more collaboration in preserving open land.
Much of the town’s efforts at acquiring open space have been haphazard and uncoordinated, said Patrick Hughes, a member of the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee, chairman of the Greenway Committee and former member of the Conservation Commission. He said efforts by the Open Space Steering Committee are aimed at creating “a dialogue.” One way to do so was through the Open Space Protection Workshop held Nov. 17.
“There’s a lot of interest in town on the subject of open space, which many people see around town,” he said.
The town currently holds about 1,200 acres of open land, said Hughes, from conservation land to cemeteries to farmland to “pocket parks.”
The problem for those interested in expanding those holdings is that there’s been no coordinated effort in town to seek out, identify and acquire available parcels of open land, he said. In fact, since the passage of the Community Preservation Act (CPA), he said few applications have been submitted for the use of funds raised by a special surcharge on property taxes.
Counting CPA funds dedicated to the preservation of open space, Hughes said funds appropriated by town meeting to purchase open land, along with other sources, currently total more than $600,000.
“The public is supportive of the idea of acquiring more open land, but it means different things to different people,” he said. “That’s why we want to find out what they have to say about the issue.”
To that end, Hughes and co-facilitator Beth Suedmeyer held last week’s workshop, which was attended by representatives of the Parks Department, Board of Selectmen, Conservation Commission and local environmentalists.
“(The workshop) is a good idea,” said Selectman Frank Maxant. “Anything that gets the public involved in town affairs is the right way to go.”
Over the years the town has reacted to outside forces such as developers rather than being proactive in trying to protect as much open space as possible, he said.
Conservation Commissioner Takashi Tada agreed. It’s been an unofficial policy to wait until developers approach the town about a project, then negotiate with them on setting aside portions of the property to be developed as open space.
“But I do think a group like the Open Space Steering Committee is needed,” said Tada. “There are a lot of groups in town that have open space as part of their responsibilities. It’s good to have a collaborative group to help in identifying common ground.”
Despite the fact that protecting open space had been a goal of the town for many years, as noted in the town’s comprehensive plan that was adopted by the Planning Board in 2005, “Ayer has purchased and preserved relatively little land.”
The plan went on to warn that to protect its water supply and local environment, the town would have to purchase more open land in the future, choosing parcels very carefully.
“Ayer needs a policy of conservation by design rather than conservation in response to preventing growth,” states the plan.
That statement refers to a moratorium on home construction that the town had voted into place. The measure was only a stop-gap solution with a boom in local construction following its eventual end.
Those who attended last week’s two-hour workshop identified priorities such as promoting more “cross communication and collaboration” among the many groups in town interested in environmental protection. Those groups are the Rail Trail Committee, Water Department, Conservation Commission, Greenway Committee, Sportsmen’s Club, Historical Commission and Parks Commission.
Next, an attempt was made to clarify the definition of open space, which could describe anything from public cemeteries to farmland.
Other priorities listed include:
* Helping farmers in town to stay in business through the amelioration of oppressive local bylaws.
* Early identification of desirable parcels for preservation before they can be acquired by developers, inspiring more cooperation among the town’s land-use boards.
* Working toward acquiring parcels that extend current holdings.
* Adding “connectivity” among previously-acquired parcels or ones that are easily accessible to the public.
In the end, workshop attendees agreed to join one of two subcommittees. One will work on the creation of an inventory of land currently held by the town and other entities and how it is or could be used. The other will deal with funding questions and implementing the increased communication and cooperation among land-use groups.
“I’m very pleased to see the kind of participation and follow-through we had for this workshop,” said Suedmeyer. “From the working groups, there will be collaboration toward establishing an implementation strategy. Everyone seems ready to dive in and start working on the tremendous amount of information gathered from the workshop and identifying what gaps might still remain to be covered.”
The first meeting of the two subcommittees as the general Open Space Steering Committee is tentatively planned for sometime in early December. Those interested in joining the group are welcome.