2007-12-28 / Front Page

Council rescues farms preservation effort

Land trust withdraws from original alliance
By Jeff McDonough

The Jamestown Town Council met in special session on Christmas Eve and unanimously approved a resolution allowing the town to obtain $3 million in bonding to purchase the development rights to about 140 acres on two island farms.

The move came after the Conanicut Island Land Trust had notified the town on Friday that it was pulling out of the much publicized farm preservation deal.

According to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, without money raised by the land trust, the town needed an additional $1,820,000 to complete the development rights purchase.

Keiser said the town is increasing its bonding by $1.4 million, using the full bonding authority of $3 million approved by voters at the Financial Town Meeting. The Department of Environmental Management re-allocated a $420,000 grant. An additional $330,000 came from an individual donor who had re-directed his money from the land trust, he said.

The town's bond debt service for the deal will cost the average island taxpayer about $26 per year on a home assessed at $480,000, he said.

The total package amounts to more than $9.75 million and includes funding from state and fed- eral sources.

Keiser said that the council hopes islanders who made contributions to the land trust to save the farms will ask the land trust to re-direct those donations to the town for the development rights purchase.

"That way people will still receive the benefit of the tax deduction," he said.

Keiser also said that people may make donations directly to the town to save the farms. The money would be used to offset the bond issue and would be an IRS-qualified tax deduction for the individual donor, he said.

Conanicut Island Land Trust President Quentin Anthony said his group decided late last week to withdraw from the purchase the development rights to the Dutra and Neale farms because of significant changes to the agreement. "The deal with the Dutras had changed in such a material way that we thought it would be a breach in our trust to spend the money on a deal that people did not recognize," he said.

The original agreement only allowed buildings on the 15 acres where the house and barns are currently located, he said, adding that the revised agreement would allow buildings on up to 2 percent of the preserved farm land. The revised agreement did not reflect representations that were made by the land trust in its public presentations and advertising campaign, he said.

Anthony stressed that any monies donated to the land trust to purchase the farms' development rights would be returned to the donors.

Town Council member Robert W. Sutton Jr. said the agreement to purchase the development rights to the Dutra farm was based on similar contracts used to preserve some 60 other farms in Rhode Island.

Sutton said federal and state monies were being used to purchase the development rights of the two Jamestown working farms. The programs were designed to preserve agriculture. "The viewshed is secondary to the farming interest," he said.

"What the public is buying is the right to subdivide and develop the land," Sutton said. "They are not buying the right to say what kind of farm or agriculture is on the land. This is a farm land protection program."

Both Sutton and Keiser stressed that there were protections in place under the new agreement to control the construction of future farm buildings. Approval of proposed structures must be granted by both the Town Council and the state Agriculture Land Preservation Commission. Any structure must also meet historic New England architecture guidelines.

The disagreement over farm buildings arose, Jesse Dutra said, because they wanted to reserve the right to build a farm stand along North Main Road. According to her e-mail records, she said, this was not a new issue because they had discussed it more than one year ago. She said they had not decided to build the farm stand, but that they wanted to keep their options open.

"We appreciate everything everybody has done on this - including the land trust," Dutra said.

Under their farm management plan, "we are always taking the viewshed into consideration," Dutra said. "We have a heritage and a history with the town, but we have to keep the farm sustainable."

Dutra said she would always remember the Financial Town Meeting where so many people came and voted to protect the island farms.

Her husband, Joe, agreed. "You've got to look into the future and we've to have provisions for that," he said. "Our agreement with the town has gone further than most farms in the state. We have given more than most."

Dutra said that the farm was a business that needed to remain flexible in order to continue its operation as conditions change. The last several years have been particularly difficult, he said.

"What we're concerned about is the farm 50 or 100 years from now," Dutra said.

The Dutras have agreed to donate to the town an easement for a public trail along North Main Road.

The town closed the agreement on Dec. 24 with the Neales to purchase the development rights to their farm.

The town and the Dutras were expected to close on their agreement yesterday.

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