The Open Space Preservation Commission at its meeting Thursday night voted 3-0 to create an ad hoc committee to discuss the potential purchase by the town of a 60-plus acre wooded property in the Springwood neighborhood that was slated to be clear cut for possible development.
Chair Ed Harrow mentioned that the land off of Kimball Road previously was discussed at a June 2021 Planning Board meeting as a site for a potential solar farm — although Harrow said a more accurate term would be “solar industrial complex.”
The Planning Board during that meeting was presented with plans for two subdivisions for the property, but the attorney for the project said the plans were put forward to freeze the zoning in anticipation of a solar bylaw being passed at the Annual Town Meeting that May so that a solar array could be installed there.
During the public comment period, abutter Sam Sader explained the history of the project, describing how a representative for BlueWave “essentially admitted that their end goal was really a solar farm.”
Sader said he has been in contact with property owner Michael Umina since that meeting and met with him several times recently. He noted that Umina told him last week that he would be amenable to selling the property to the town, spurring discussion about creating an ad hoc group of stakeholders to discuss the town’s options.
“He’s willing to sell everything,” Sader said, noting that even partial preservation would be beneficial. Although it was not certified, Sader presented a letter of intent he drafted to Umina to sign “in good faith,” and Umina signed.
Said Harrow: “Having a document where he says he’s willing to sell is a big deal.”
Harrow mentioned that solar arrays are more expensive to install in parking lots because of the potential liability to the cars, making it more attractive to build one on clear-cut land.
The committee voted that Harrow should notify Town Manager Norman Khumalo that the land was “a parcel of interest.”
Member Jane Moran suggested that an “ad hoc committee” of stakeholders be created that would include Khumalo, OSPC and Conservation Commission members, abutters and Umina to bring all sides to the table. She noted that a similar situation arose when a golf course was proposed to be developed. Harrow said he would bring the issue before the Conservation Commission.
The ad hoc group strategy could be a model for partnership when similar situations arise, Moran added.
Harrow added the land would have to be appraised. While the town potentially could agree to pay for the amount of the appraisal, it was suggested that if the owner wanted more money, land abutting neighbors’ property hypothetically might be able to be sold to them to make up the difference of the cost. The appraisal process will take some time, according to Harrow. Any land purchase proposal would have to be voted upon at Town Meeting.
The clear cutting of trees began on April 10, according to Sader, which was legal under a permit issued by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. It only stopped when several concerned residents from the abutting Springwood and Hunters Ridge neighborhoods approached the property owner about their desire for conservation. On May 5, Sader and several neighbors visited the site with Umina when he told Paul Davis, the logger foreman, to stop cutting down the trees. After 10 minutes, the cutting resumed and police were called to the site.
Said Sader: “The contractor was a very impolite person.”
“We all tried to do everything we could to stop the cutting,” he continued, noting the deer, turkey and other wildlife that wander into his yard.
Bob Levenson, an abutter who attended the site visit as well as the June 2021 Planning Board meeting, expressed frustration at Davis’s conduct on May 5.
“I’m baffled at how to deal with people who are dishonest, who would lie to your face,” he said, noting that “he was almost too agreeable” when Umina asked him to stop cutting down the trees.
He described the clear-cut land as “an ugly, ugly gash.”