CHESTER – A lease for the home on Spring Hill Farm was re-upped with selectmen approval last week, but the funds will now be going to the town’s general fund rather than the Spring Hill Trust.
It’s been a sticking point for years, as one selectman or another seeks to pull that rent money back to the town, but on Thursday, Aug. 18, trustees of the public property agreed that it made sense to do so.
The trustees also asked that at least some of that rent money be donated back to the existing trust.
No decision was made on that request.
For their part, long-time trustees Chuck Myette and Brad Wamsley explained that as they worked to turn the trust into a 501(c)(3) non-profit, they could no longer take rent money in, except as a donation.
So the trustees would agree to put that rent into the general fund with the hope that they would receive funds in return from the selectmen to help them continue to operate the farm.
The rent issue was decided quickly, but as always with Spring Hill, some selectmen disagreed about what should be going on there.
Spring Hill is a 400-acre farm and forested property with house, barns and outbuildings bequeathed to the town by former resident Muriel Church. She stipulated in her will that she’d like to see the property be maintained as a working farm as long as possible and for her animals to have a place to live out their lives. Prior to her death in 2001, Church set up a board of trustees to oversee the farm and a trust to defray its operational cost.
Since then the Spring Hill Farm Trust has been overseeing the property, selecting tenants with agricultural plans, and maintaining both buildings and farm equipment.
It was determined in 1996, when the donation was accepted, that the town would be responsible for building maintenance and the trust for day-to-day costs.
In part because of disagreements over the years about what the town should cover at the farm, in 2014 the matter was put to voters at town meeting, when it was asked that Spring Hill get its own budget for building maintenance. This article easily passed.
At last week’s meeting, selectman Cass Buckley said he would like to see the farm be less of a drain on taxpayers going forward. This came after selectman Dick Trask spoke about what kinds of plans the farm had moving forward. Trask has also pushed for the rent money coming back to the town.
Buckley argued that because there were working farms in town that he said were profitable, it shouldn’t be hard for Spring Hill to also turn a profit as a working farm, be more sustainable and thus be less of a drain on taxpayers. That will require some goals, said Buckley.
Wamsley, who nearly annually explains the benefits of the farm to detractors who argue that it’s a tax sink, spoke about those benefits at the meeting, particularly the tax-related ones.
“I have to do this every year,” said Wamsley, referencing that Buckley was a new selectman. “It’s not a drain on taxpayers, we save over $300,000 every year on taxes, if that had been developed…You have to see this in a more global way.”
Buckley was elected to the board in May but has been active for years on the budget committee, planning and zoning boards.
Wamsley referenced a study about how housing units add to a town’s tax burden as new residents require services, but undeveloped land does not have those same burdens.
“Every time we go to taxpayers, they overwhelmingly support us because they know it’s not a drain,” said Wamsley.
The property is open to the public for recreation and leased growing land and the trustees often look for ways to invite residents and groups to utilize it.
It was also noted that Spring Hill is not a typical farm because of the split equity. Typically a farmer owns the farm and the work he or she puts in comes right back, explained Wamsley, saying that it’s not the tenants’ farm, so they don’t have that incentive.
But even as the tenants, who are relatives of Church, work outside the farm for a living, they’re still doing a great job in improving and maintaining it. It looks much better and the town has a good thing going with the current tenants, said Wamsley.
Former tenants have not always been so kind to the building and trustees have had to play catch up after some of them.
Wamsley also sought specifics from the selectmen on whether they would donate some of the rent money back, but didn’t get any definite answers. He said he feared the selectmen would decide against any donation now that the rent funds are going to the general fund.
Selectman chair Steph Landau said he would like the trustees to come back to a later meeting after the tenants signed the new agreement and decide at that time on specifics, including funds for a budget.
The trustees agreed to that plan, and Myette said they would also seek to formalize a business plan and look more closely at the current operations plan in response to selectmen’s suggestions. Myette noted that the operations plan has never been implemented to a point that meshes with the fact that the farm now has a budget.