Multi-level partnership could include 1,600 acres in Northfield

NORTHFIELD — Local, state and national agencies are teaming up to protect 1,600 acres of local forestland.

This spring, the nationwide nonprofit Trust for Public Land inked a purchase agreement with the Northfield Mount Hermon School, which owns the large, hilly forest in the northeast corner of the town. While the trust was interested in making the initial move, it wanted to find partners who would take over ownership.

“It seems the Department of Conservation and Recreation is extremely interested in the property and in playing a role there,” Christopher LaPointe, senior project manager for the Trust for Public Land, told the Selectboard at a recent meeting.

“It could possibly be added to the Northfield State Forest,” LaPointe said. The state forest, run by the DCR, abuts the parcel.

The Selectboard gave its unanimous support for the project, signing the town on as a partner in the project. The partnership comes with no strings attached — the town is not obligated to put a single dollar toward the project.

It’s more of a sign of support, said LaPointe, to show that the property is a priority to the town. The nonbinding support is important, he said, and could go a long way toward securing a grant.

With the trust taking the lead, and the DCR and town signed on as partners, LaPointe hopes to secure a state Landscape Partnership Program grant to aid in the purchase of the property.

The grant could fund up to half of the purchase price, LaPointe explained, and the DCR may pay a portion of costs as well. The program provides up to $1.5 million or half the property value for projects that protect 500 or more acres. Applications are due at the end of the month.

LaPointe, who has visited the property several times, said it boasts well-planned and maintained hiking trails and logging roads, kept up by NMH according to a thorough forest management plan. He said the management plan would continue to serve the property for years under future ownership.

While the bulk of the land is in Northfield, about 90 acres are over the line in Warwick, and a small portion is in Winchester, N.H.

While the project’s partners are interested in the massive forestland, there is one aspect to the purchase that may be harder to deal with.

The East Northfield Water Co., which serves about 270 year-round and 63 seasonal customers, is also part of the package.

“The ultimate success on the 1,600-acre property relies on figuring out what to do with the water company,” LaPointe said.

The trust brought in consultants Weston and Sampson, an environmental and infrastructure consulting firm, to evaluate the water company.

“Weston and Sampson found the water company to be in better condition than they expected at the outset,” said LaPointe.

He said the consultants also looked at the utility’s financials, running models for several scenarios.

The NMH-owned water company once provided the drinking water from Grandin Reservoir to the school’s former 500-student Northfield campus. Another large customer is the Northfield Golf Club, though the new owners have said they are looking into tapping into their own watershed to water the grounds with site-sourced water, rather than buying it from the utility.

Financial models included revenue with and without the golf-course or a new user of the campus. They also took capital needs like equipment purchases into account. LaPointe said the report is still being finalized.

The trust is looking into different possibilities for offloading the water company. He plans to speak with the Northfield Water District about absorbing the East Northfield Water Co., and will explore other options as well.

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