Land is the big question

Friday, June 27
CHESHIRE — Voters at Monday's special town meeting will be asked again to place land surrounding the town well on West Mountain Road in the hands of the Selectmen.

In turn, the Selectmen want to sell a portion of the 700-acre plot to the state and use the proceeds to offset a $500,000 judgment the town incurred from a decade-old eminent domain dispute. The land now is under the purview of the town-run Cheshire Water Co.

The meeting will be at 7 p.m. at Cheshire Elementary School.

In May, town meeting voters rejected the transfer. A major concern then was that the proposal did not specify to whom the land would be sold. This time, the Selectmen want to make it clear that the state is the would-be buyer.

Although the proposal was voted down last time, the Selectmen said the land sale to the state could be the only viable solution to what is now a $1,060,052 problem when interest is factored in.

"It's the only option other than taxation. It just so happens the state is interested (in some of the land) at this time," Selectmen Chairman Daniel Delorey said. "We're not entertaining any other offers, and we probably never will."

The state wants it to stay public land, and so does the town, Delorey said.

"We're not going to do anything else with it," he said. "You'll be able to hike on it before the sale, you'll be able to hike on it after the sale. You'll be able to hunt there before the sale, you'll be able to hunt there after the sale."

Delorey said the 440 acres the town is looking to transfer is an "environmental hot spot." The state hopes to buy it and add to the Mount Greylock Reservation to make it classified as a "great forest."

Town Administrator Mark Webber said the town still will need to borrow the money even if the town's last appeal fails. If approved, the land sale would not happen in time for the first payment on the ruling comes due.

Webber said the average single-family home in Cheshire is worth about $203,000. Based on a tax rate of $8.27 per thousand dollars of valuation, the average annual tax bill is $1,679.

The loan to cover the ruling would cost the town about $132,000 a year for 10 years. The first 10 years of interest would add 60 cents, or 7 percent, to the tax rate, which would represent a $121 increase to the average annual tax bill.

At the town meeting in May, opposition to the sale also centered around the timber revenue from the site and the potential for wind turbines to be placed on the flat portion of land. The Selectmen questioned the usefulness of a wind farm that is blocked by a mountain, saying it would be as useful as putting "a solar collector in your closet."

Webber said the prices that the state and the town have been batting round would more than cover the ruling and the interest that has accrued over time, but they needed to be authorized to sell before and definite figures could even be discussed.

"I don't mean to beat this to death, but you can't truly negotiate the price and acreage without having the land," he said. "How can you talk with any buyer without authorization?'

"I dealt with contracts for 20 years and the first thing you're always asked is 'Do you have authorization to deal?' " Selectman Paul Astorino said. "Without it, you have nothing."

Webber, who is stepping down as town administrator for a permanent position in West Stockbridge, will be sticking around until the special town meeting. He said he will be in and out of the office as his replacement gets used to the job.

At the Tuesday night board meeting, Selectwoman Carol Francesconi said Webber's seven years of service to the town have been invaluable and never questioned by the town.

"There are some decisions you live to regret or question," she said. "However, when Mark's name was mentioned to us on the last day of applications being opened for the job, we made the decision to interview him, and it was a decision we have never regretted."


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