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The View from White Oaks

Lauren R. Stevens: When it comes to farmland, especially in Williamstown, it's more than worth it to preserve it


Cattle dot the view over the Phelps parcel.

Berkshire towns are often torn between retaining farmland and developing it, the latter bringing more income from taxes. The conflict is particularly pointed over a 10-acre parcel in Williamstown, because when it was placed into Chapter 61, lowering taxes to preserve agriculture, the town received the right of first refusal. Beth Phelps, the owner, has decided to sell.

A Select Board can transfer its right to another entity. In this case, a residential developer is interested. So, too, is Williamstown Rural Lands, a land trust, if it can raise the $745,000 price negotiated with the developer. A development could include four homes if wells and septic work out. Although the town is interested in greater equity in its housing, the Select Board acknowledges that this land, far from town center, would not be the place for moderate-income housing.

Norris and Betty-Jim Phelps owned more than 1,000 acres in South Williamstown for their dairy business at one time. In 2001, the Sabot family purchased part of that land for Cricket Creek Farm, which produces cheese and meat. When Dick Sabot died in 2005, his wife, Jude, and his son, Topher, continued the business.

Darryl and Sarah Lipinski (she’s a Phelps) of Sweet Brook Farm, also part of the original Phelps farm, use those 10 acres to graze their 25-head of Black Angus cattle. They are beef and maple syrup producers. Williamstown, a right-to-farm community, wants to support its farmers, and the Lipinskis are a rare breed: enthusiastic young farmers. Although the land in question is not prime agricultural soil, it is suitable for grazing and haying.

There’s more to the lot. Being open land, it provides the view of Mount Greylock from gravel Oblong Road, part of a panorama so special that the state designated it a “distinctive landscape” of the “Class A” variety — “entitled to the highest level of protection.” The mountain scenery is “the most picturesque in the Commonwealth.”

At an Oct. 24 Select Board meeting, Rural Lands President Greg Islan confirmed that he had already begun fundraising and that a professional fundraiser would be assisting. In answer to a challenge from a Select Board member suggesting that few people took advantage of the views, he said, on the contrary, lots of people from near and far walked Oblong Road. High school and college teams ran there. The Select Board also fretted about “almost half the town’s land being conserved.” Actually, the figure is 36 percent, less than adjacent towns and about average for nearby towns in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York state, according to the town’s Existing Conditions Analysis report.

By law, Rural Lands has until Jan. 17 to exercise a transferred right of first refusal and until April 23 to close on the deal. The Select Board wants details of how Rural Lands would raise the money and a letter of commitment by Nov. 28, together with assurances that under its ownership the land would provide some form of public access. The dates may be subject to further interpretation by town counsel and Rural Land’s lawyer, but presumably the board will decide on the 28th whether to assign rights to the developer or Rural Lands.

The Planning Board and two other boards have weighed in, at the request of the Select Board. Their views cannot be as easily dismissed as the Select Board chair tried by essentially suggesting that, of course, the Agricultural Commission favors farming and the Conservation Commission wants to conserve. Like the Select Board, other town boards try to the best of their ability to do the best for the town. They all favored assigning rights to Rural Lands, and so should the Select Board.

At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.

Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor and a Williamstown Conservation Commissioner.

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