Front Page for The Friends

The following article appeared on the front page of today’s Waterbury Republican-American:

CHESHIRE: Community farm backers frustrated by state, town regulations

Monday, March 5, 2007


Copyright © 2007 Republican-American

Cheshire: Green fields nurturing colorful vegetables. Children learning science through hands-on activities. Hiking and walking trails enjoyed by all people.

All this could someday be a reality at Boulder Knoll Farm.

But for anyone visiting the farm, one of the three parcels that make up the 150-acre, town-owned land known as Boulder Knoll, it’s hard to imagine.

A red barn is almost falling down from its own weight. A sign posted on the barn orders people to keep out. Overgrown burdocks and other brush stick out from a carpet of white snow.

The 93.5-acre Boulder Knoll Farm, long owned by the Lassen family, was a dairy farm for all of the 20th century. It was with hopes of preserving a piece of Cheshire’s agricultural tradition that the town bought the farm in 2000 for $2 million, using a $450,000 state grant.

Managing farmland has been much harder than managing any other open space the town owns, in part because of restrictions that came with the state grant.

Since the purchase, nearly nothing has been done to the land.

“Every year we wait it gets worse,” said Kim Stoner, president of Friends of Boulder Knoll, a group of about 40 dedicated residents brave enough to dream of the day when agricultural activity will return to the farm.

It was inactivity at the farm that led to the group forming two years ago. Last fall, the group presented the town with a 60-page proposal for bringing the farm back to life.

Under its plan, the group would have signed an agreement with nearby farmers to cut hay for this season, hired a farm manager this spring and seen the first community-supported agriculture by spring of next year.

By 2011, the group hoped to recruit 350 local residents to buy community-supported agriculture shares.

The proposal asked to enter into a partnership with the town that would have required the town to spend $540,000 over four years, starting with $160,000 in 2007.

Though members of different committees who have heard the group’s plans liked the idea and welcomed the group’s enthusiasm, the town is not willing to put up the money to make it happen. Nor do officials have a counter-proposal, at least not yet.

“The town wasn’t ready to deal with something that complicated,” Stoner said.

Part of the reason for the paralysis are the conditions placed on the state funding for the purchase of the farm.

Environmental Planner Suzanne Simone said that according to the agreement with the state, the land has to be open to the public and maintained as open space. Wetlands and watersheds on it must be protected. It is to be used for public enjoyment and education. When used for agricultural purposes, it has to be not-for-profit, and nothing can be sold on the premises.

Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Dennis Shane said the money was given to encourage preservation of open space and scenic beauty, and to ensure public access to the land.

Shane said DEP restrictions on farmland are different from restrictions imposed when the state Agricultural Department invests in the preservation of farmland, usually involving farmers who want to continue farming their land.

The town’s own regulations don’t make it easier.

Robert Giddings, a member of the Friends of Boulder Knoll and neighbor to the property, offered to volunteer to mow a 5-foot-wide path along a road used by the Lassens to get their equipment through the farm in the spring and fall. Giddings thought townspeople could enjoy walking on the property.

But taking him up on his offer requires months of approvals, numerous permits and enough running around to test the patience of a saint.

Giddings and the group have been told they would have to have a soil scientist map wetlands on each side of the proposed path, and determine if there is a natural path separating the two wetlands that Giddings can trace with the mower. He would need to go before the wetlands and parks and recreation commissions and before the Town Council, he was told at an Environment Commission meeting recently.

Town Councilor David Schrumm said the farm has been one of the most frustrating town endeavors.

It took six years to finalize the agreement with the state and get the money. The state restrictions are a particular source of resentment for Schrumm.

“Their restrictions are so draconian it is very hard to find someone who wants to use it as a farm,” Schrumm said.

He said he wishes the town would give the money back.

“If we hadn’t used the state money we would have been miles off,” Schrumm said.

The town’s management plan for its agricultural properties includes the other two farms in Boulder Knoll: the 37.53-acre Jackman Farm, which the town acquired in 1994, and the 19.5-acre Blauvelt property, purchased in 2002 for $175,000.

For the past four years, the town has rented the home at 866 Boulder Road, also part of Boulder Knoll Farm, to Kerry Deegan, a police lieutenant. Currently, Deegan’s rent is $600 a month. Deegan has fixed the house, planted a garden and polices the property.

Last August, in an effort to get things moving at the farm, the town put out a request for proposals for the property. It got two, one from Friends of Boulder Knoll and another from Deegan.

Deegan proposes to plant sunflowers on 3 to 5 acres on the farm, sell the flowers, and donate the proceeds to the American Cancer Society. He said he still has to figure out how he’ll sell the sunflowers, since the state guidelines prohibit him from selling them at the farm. The Town Council gave him the green light for his project.

The Town Council approved one of the ideas of Friends of Boulder Knoll: to get a team of environmental scientists to inventory wetlands and wildlife on the land. The other ideas have been shelved for now.

What makes the efforts of Friends of Boulder Knoll even more pressing is that farmland that is let go can revert to forest. The farm is showing signs of it, Giddings told the commission.

Stoner said once it reverts to forest, it’s much more expensive to make it farmland again.

Though disappointed it didn’t get the support it wanted, the group is not giving up.

It has scheduled several educational programs starting March 19, focusing on community-supported agriculture, community farming and wildlife habitat.

Stoner said they will stick to their plan to bring community-supported agriculture to the farm and will work toward an agreement with the town. Once they agree with the town, they’ll look to raise their own funds, Stoner said.

“All we can do is just take it one step at a time,” Stoner said.

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