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Northfield wetlands conservation gets Selectboard backing

Recorder/Paul Franz
Northfield Golf Club clubhouse

Recorder/Paul Franz Northfield Golf Club clubhouse

NORTHFIELD — The town will soon start exploring its options to acquire and preserve a large wetland next to the for-sale Northfield Golf Club.

The idea was pitched to the Selectboard by an unofficial group that’s been working to conserve the 94-acre Mill Brook East property. Members thought they’d leave Tuesday’s meeting with a list of questions to answer before the town’s executive body would make a decision.

Instead, they left with the Selectboard’s unanimous support.

“I’m very much in favor of this,” said Selectboard Chairman John “Jack” Spanbauer, after Northfield Land Coop leader Annie Chappell told the board about the group’s plans and possible funding.

Chappell and others are confident that the town could acquire the property without affecting property taxes.

The idea has also seen support in the ongoing master plan process. The desire to preserve the Mill Brook property has been expressed by many residents at town-wide master plan forums, where open space, conservation, active and passive recreation have been among the town’s top priorities.

The town had expressed interest in the property in 2006, after a report proposed a Mill Brook conservation area, and detailed the property’s wealth of wildlife, history, and recreational opportunities. At the time, Northfield Mount Hermon School hadn’t listed the parcel for sale, but the school had already closed its Northfield campus and consolidated to Gill, leaving the town to wonder what was to become of it and other NMH-owned properties in town.

However, since NMH wasn’t interested in selling the Mill Brook properties at the time, plans didn’t go very far.

That changed in March, when NMH listed the golf course and wetlands as a $1.25 million package.

The unofficial group of residents formed shortly thereafter. After it briefly entertained the idea of a group-buy of both properties, the group switched its focus to preserving the wetland portion.

The ad-hoc group has done a lot of homework, talking to stakeholders, seeking out funding, and meeting regularly to compare notes and brainstorm.

Possible funding sources include the private Mount Grace Land Trust, which regularly funds land preservation efforts and has expressed an interest in the project, and the town’s Community Preservation Act fund.

CPA money comes from a surcharge on property tax bills, and eligible uses include open space conservation, though expenditures require town meeting approval.

Receiving Selectboard support makes two pieces of good news for the group in about as many weeks.

The Coop’s dream got a little closer to becoming reality earlier this month, when owners the Northfield Mount Hermon School announced that it would consider separating the two properties, to make the golf course an easier sale.

Members have identified other stakeholders as well as grant and other non-town funding opportunities, and gotten their name out to parties eyeing the golf course, with the help of NMH’s real estate agent, D. William Pratt.

Pratt has said that those who have seriously inquired about the golf course are not interested in the wetlands next door. They may, however, want two small portions of that property, one which contains the golf course’s clubhouse, and the other an open hayfield, which could be used for a number of purposes.

Most parties are interested in continuing the operation of the golf course, though Pratt said one group of investors is interested in the subdivision and development of the land.

Pratt said the latter option is less likely at the moment, with the 217-acre former NMH campus vacant. Were new tenants for the campus to be found, however, it could increase interest in Northfield properties, said Pratt.

The Coop group would like things to move quickly, and the Selectboard concurred, though the ball will soon be in NMH’s court.

The first order of business will be a letter from the board to NMH, expressing the town’s interest in the property. The letter will also request a meeting, so that NMH and the board may figure out how to subdivide the property, and talk about a purchase price.

They must decide who would pay to survey the clubhouse and field, so they may be removed from the wetlands property. NMH has told Coop members that the school does not want to pay for the survey. If the town picks up the tab, said Spanbauer, it would require a town meeting vote to fund it.

Selectboard member Jed Proujansky suggested that the cost could be factored into the purchase price for the property. This way, the whole deal could be done with a single town meeting vote.

The board appreciated the amount of legwork the ad-hoc group has already done.

“You obviously did a lot of work before you came here tonight,” Proujansky said Tuesday. “Keep up the good work; we like it.”

For more on the Mill Brook property, see the 2006 report on the Mill Brook properties, at goo.gl/53WUw.

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

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