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Northfield’s growth restriction may be eased

NORTHFIELD — The town seeks to widen the margins on a growth restriction bylaw accepted last year.

Voters at the May 6 annual town meeting will be asked to limit new construction to 12 dwellings per year, with no more than six dwellings to be built by any one applicant.

The current bylaw caps new construction at six dwellings, at two per applicant. The new bylaw would be effective July 1, for one year. If the new bylaw is voted down, the current growth restriction would expire on June 30.

There have been no applications for new construction since before the bylaw was adopted, according to Richard Fitzgerald, chairman of the Planning Board.

This, and the fact there are fewer developable properties on the market now and the master plan is completed, may explain the lack of attendance at a Wednesday hearing on the matter held by the Planning Board. When nobody showed up after 20 minutes, the board decided to close the hearing.

The original restriction was pitched as a way to limit growth in Northfield while the town put together a new 20-year master plan. At the time, there was a very real possibility that developers would descend on the town of 3,000.

Last year, the town anxiously awaited word on the fate of the 217-acre former Northfield Mount Hermon School, which had closed in 2005 when the school consolidated to its Gill campus.

Billionaire Christian philanthropists and Hobby Lobby Stores owners the Green family of Oklahoma had owned the campus until January 2013. The Greens poured more than $6 million into repairs since buying the campus in 2009, and had intended to give it away to a Christian school or organization. Throughout 2012, the family hosted dozens of groups before deciding to give the campus to Arizona’s Grand Canyon University.

The college planned to host as many as 5,000 students within five years of opening, on a campus that used to serve 500 boarding students and faculty members. However, several problems arose for the school and the deal was never closed.

Nonetheless, Northfield residents and officials worried that another large institution could come to town.

If that happened, the town feared, it could also attract developers aimed at turning Northfield’s open spaces into housing developments and commercial buildings.

At the time, several of the town’s open spaces were in flux.

The nine-hole Northfield Golf Club and a 22-acre property near the Connecticut River, both owned by NMH at the time, were put up for sale. They have since been bought — the small lot by a Northfield resident who did not intend to develop it, and the golf course by the Snow family of Leyden. The Snows intend to keep operating the golf course, restore an old Victorian to use as a bed and breakfast and renovate the current clubhouse for use as a public restaurant and bar.

Another NMH property may be preserved as open space, as the national nonprofit, the Trust for Public Land, has signed a tentative purchase agreement. The trust seeks to protect the land through conservation restrictions and by finding a long-term owner that wants to preserve the 1,650-acre property that lies in Northfield, Warwick and Winchester, N.H.

There is still no word on the campus, though officials with the current owner, National Christian Foundation, have said it’s taking them much longer than anticipated to find a viable owner.

If it can’t find a nonprofit to give the campus to, though, the foundation could sell the property and donate the money received to other nonprofits, as it has done with other unrelated lands.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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