LENOX -- One of South Berkshire's most iconic, scenic properties has been spared from potential high-density development.
Under a $700,000 agreement announced on Tuesday between the Berkshire Natural Resources Council and the Sprague family, owners of Undermountain Farm and Stables since 1973, 83 acres of pristine farmland and the 63-acre northern end of Parson's Marsh will be protected for all time as agricultural and open space.
Hatched following nearly a year of negotiations between the nonprofit land-conservation organization and the family, the deal gives the BNRC an option to complete the agreement for the two parcels totaling 146 acres by Oct. 31, 2015, said Narain Schroeder, the council's director of land conservation.
BNRC plans to raise $700,000 from private sources to complete the transaction. Schroeder, noting that the agreement includes deadline extensions if necessary, called it one of the council's most significant land conservation deals.
The 83-acre farmland, excluding its barn, would be under a conservation restriction "in perpetuity," he said. A separate option gives the BNRC the right to acquire outright 63 acres -- the northern portion of Parson's Marsh as well as the southern farm fields which could serve as a future public access to the marsh.
For the farm parcel, "the conservation restriction runs with the deed and it's legally binding so that it restricts development," Schroeder said.
Each of the two parcels is priced at $350,000, Schroeder said, "but we have every intention of doing the whole deal. The goal here is to make sure that the farm can continue to be a working farm."
"At present, we're retaining the farm and its operation exactly as it has run for the last 40 years," said Kevin Sprague. "We're pursuing this conservation restriction to protect the possibility that this can remain a functioning farm into the future, even if we no longer own it."
Significantly, the agreement with BNRC removes the option of developing the site, "and that's really our primary goal. Having preserved the land ourselves under private ownership," Sprague said, "we want to preserve that landscape in perpetuity."
"We've been working toward this goal for 20-plus years," he said, "and sometimes it takes a crisis to catalyze people's energies and focus, and certainly that's what happened."
The property had faced potential foreclosure by VFC Partners of Waco, Texas, which held a mortgage and last September demanded a $400,000 payment. But that debt has been discharged, according to documents filed at the Berkshire Middle Registry of Deeds in Pittsfield.
"It's almost two separate landscapes," Schroeder said. "We think the farm is best owned and managed in private hands either by the Spragues or whoever comes along, whereas the southern half of Parson's Marsh is already owned by the town of Lenox and is conserved as a sanctuary. This is an opportunity to get the northern half and put the two together."
The appraised value of the farm and marshland properties is nearly $1.4 million, he noted. All but the 63-acre marshland would remain on the town's tax rolls.
"There was a long negotiation working toward this," Schroeder pointed out, "and the Spragues generously agreed to a bargain sale price. That's the single largest donation this project is going to get. The negotiation met the Spragues' goals and it was a number we felt we could raise."
"This is one of those iconic properties that everybody knows," he said, "so we expect people will step forward. It's a well-known landscape and represents a coming-together of so much that is the Berkshires -- a pastoral, cultural, natural landscape all rolled into one."
"It is a heavy lift," he said, noting "$700,000 is no small number to come up with but I think this landscape speaks for itself."
There is a $650,000 mortgage held by Berkshire Bank on the properties, according to Registry records.
The site is also home to the 10-acre Undermountain Stable, which will remain privately owned and operated by the Spragues.
"Undermountain Stable is not currently on the market," Sprague said, "but certainly if somebody came along and said, ‘I just have to own a horse farm in the Berkshires and offered us some money, it would be on the table."
The stable operation remains "a going concern, it's a good business and a great community asset," he asserted.
The conservation restriction would make the farm property at 400 Undermountain Road more attractive to a potential future owner, he noted
"It took us talking to BNRC to find out how one does these things and how it becomes possible," Sprague said. "It was incredibly helpful to have these guys come in and say, ‘This is how you do it.' "
Separately, the 11.4-acre site containing the Sprague mansion across from the farm at 399 Undermountain Road remains for sale through Wheeler & Taylor Realty Co. for a current asking price of $2,850,000. The house and farm buildings date from 1901. The transaction with the BNRC separates the mansion from the farm.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto