CHESTER – This year voters will have the chance to decide whether they want to once again take over regular maintenance of the buildings at Spring Hill Farm. The matter has been making the rounds of selectmen and budget committee meetings in recent weeks but just what the property is, who owns the buildings and how the Spring Hill Farm Trust fits into the matter can get confused in the discussions.
The Spring Hill Farm trustees met with the selectmen earlier in the year to present three potential articles and discuss any questions, but since then the selectmen and budget committee have been discussing the matter without the trustees’ involvement.
While one article moving forward asks for funds to repaint and insulate the farmhouse, the other article has a more lasting effect. It asks that the town take over maintenance of the farm’s buildings.
The third article has fallen to the wayside, as selectmen have decided not to pursue it this year. It was to have created a capital reserve fund for maintenance.
The town-owned property was once cared for by the late Muriel Church, a teacher in town. According to those who knew her, she loved her property and the animals it supported, and when she was getting close to the end of her life, despite attractive offers from developers, she focused on preserving her property for the current and future residents of Chester. To do so she drew up a trust and a will to govern her desires for the land, and the town accepted ownership and care for the acreage.
The trustees say that earlier in the town’s ownership of the property and when the documents were being drawn up, the selectmen agreed to handle maintenance of the buildings. But in the years since, as the membership of that board changed, that responsibility has gradually fallen to the wayside, in part because the trust does not lay out whose responsibility the buildings are.
In recent years the trustees have been working to keep up the buildings with a limited trust, or they have gone to the town through warrant article to help pay for maintenance and repair.
Brad Wamsley, a longtime trustee and friend of Church, said Church did not want her farm to be a burden to taxpayers, but the leaders of the town assured her it would not, as the savings to the taxpayer from keeping the land undeveloped were so large.
Wamsley explained that a study done by a local graduate student at the time conservatively estimated that if the property were to be developed and homes erected, the cost to the town would be $250,000 per year. That’s more than $3 million in the 12 years since Church’s passing.
It is generally agreed that development increases the tax rate, as the services new residents require, from roads to police to schools, far outpace what is paid in taxes.
Church, as part of her agreement with the town, wanted to see her farm remain a working farm as long as feasible. And she wanted her animals to live out their lives on site. To keep with her wishes, the trustees primarily use the trust funds to purchase or maintain equipment to be used on the farm and for the creation of needed infrastructure like fencing.
Though the town owns the buildings, the trust documents indicate that any rent obtained from the buildings goes into the trust for operations. There was extended discussion on this point at a recent budget committee meeting, members questioning why the town didn’t get that money.
Chair of the trust Jeff Geary said the land is a great benefit to the town, from its many recreational and agricultural uses to the tax mitigation it provides. But, he noted, because the town owns the property, ultimately it is the town’s responsibility to have a maintenance plan for it.
“The tax burden that’s been relieved is tremendous,” said Geary. “That’s one of our biggest thoughts in why we feel the town ought to maintain it.”
Moving forward, the trustees are hopeful that a few things are falling into place to bring the structures back to where they should be. While not all tenants have taken good care of the property, some even damaging it, the newest tenants have a vested interest in caring for the place and are working with the trustees to improve it.
New tenants Jay and Angela Sweet and their children have familial connections to Church. Jay is the grandson of Muriel Church’s cousin, spent summers working at the farm as a teenager and referred to Church as Aunt Muriel. According to trustees, the Sweets are looking forward to improving the property as a kind of homage to Church.
And with continued town support, the trustees are confident in the future of the landmark.