GROTON — When the town of Groton agreed in 2006 to purchase a 360-acre parcel of land off Farmers Row and Shirley Road, the land collectively known as Surrenden Farm had a very uncertain future.
The rolling expanse had been earmarked for commercial development: the Groton Planning Board had approved a subdivision plan for “Surrenden Farms,” a residential development that would have built 136 homes in the area closest to Farmers Row, with development set to begin that spring.
But before the forest could be flattened for housing, arsenic was found to have contaminated the soil at the site of the proposed development — the residue of pesticides long used to protect an orchard that existed in that area.
A major economic opportunity became a reclamation project overnight.
Without a lot of options, the town purchased land from the Marion Danielson Strachan Family Trust and the Marion D. Campbell Trust. The purchase was backed by funds from the Community Preservation Act and with the aid of the Trust for Public Land, Groton Conservation Trust, Groton School and others.
On Dec. 15, Groton made its final $215,000 payment on the land.
Revitalized as a source of agriculture as well as an open, natural space for public use, it’s been a long path to get here.
At least the woods and land hadn’t been razed. “It would have totally trashed the property,” Select Board member Peter Cunningham said.
It was then, according to Select Board Chair Becky Pine, that representatives from the town, as well as those from the Trust for Public Land, Groton Conservation Trust and Groton School stepped in.
“That’s when the idea of, maybe that land could be preserved, came up,” Pine said.
After deliberation with the Groton Board of Health, a deed restriction was placed on the property, a clause that made note of the arsenic contamination to any future buyers. More importantly, it opened up an opportunity for the town and its backers to protect the land.
The deed restriction “is what forced the developers to start working with the town to reach some agreement and preserve that land as it is today,” said Cunningham, who referred to the orchard and arsenic contamination as the “Achilles’ heel” of the development.
“If there hadn’t been that arsenic contamination issue and the deed restriction because of that, they may well have gone ahead and done the development,” he said.
From there, things moved relatively quickly. The buyers agreed to purchase the land for $19.4 million and were given one year to raise the funds. After a massive turnout at town meeting, Groton voted to take out a loan to pay its share, using funds from the Community Preservation Act to repay that debt over 15 years.
“The town, to its credit, went ahead and did it with an astoundingly large vote,” Pine said. “There were 745 people at a town meeting who voted in favor.”
“I don’t believe that I’ve ever been to a town meeting that has ever had that many people,” she said.
Since the purchase, the property has been transformed. The soil has been decontaminated and restored, the orchard replaced with a hay farm. Trails meander throughout the property and are regularly maintained as well, allowing residents to take in the natural beauty up close.
“It’s one of those things you really need to see to take in and appreciate it,” said Cunningham. “When you’re driving down Farmers Row and, all of a sudden, it just opens up and you see this huge view off toward Mount Wachusett, it’s just really spectacular.”
It appears the wait may have been worth it for Surrenden Farm.
Town Manager Mark Haddad said the acquisition left a “sense of accomplishment” and said “it was a good thing for the future of Groton that that land was preserved.”
“That’s how community works,” Bob Pine, a trustee of the Groton Conservation Trust and member for more than 40 years, said. “It was kind of this thing that came together in a beautiful way and shows that if you believe in something and are willing and able to work together, wonderful things that can happen.”
Becky Pine called it a “stunningly positive” example of teamwork and what communities can do when they work together.