WESTFORD -- Selectmen burned the midnight oil Tuesday to make a decision on two property deals -- one with plans for development, and another that strives to save land for conservation.
In a nearly five hour meeting Tuesday night, selectmen voted just after 12 a.m. to side with a developer's proposal for the 26-acre property at 64 Main St., put up for sale by the Agnew family earlier this year.
The 3 to 1 vote, with Selectmen Don Siriani against and Jim Sullivan absent, effectively swept off the table a complicated deal put forward by a neighbors' group of about 80.
The group of abutters and residents offered to apply for a grant and privately fundraise up to $700,000 to ensure about 22 acres of the land could be placed under conservation.
"Westford is known for its trees and its apple trees," Jean LaRoche-Owens said just after the vote in favor of development Wednesday morning. "It's disappearing."
Selectmen were approached in the last few weeks with an opportunity from local developers.
David Guthrie and Christopher Finneral proposed purchasing the property for $700,000 to build about four to six homes, with land offered to the town as well. Guthrie changed the proposal Tuesday to instead build just three, single-family homes, with 19 acres of land for the town at a cost of $1, another acre placed under conservation and a 50-foot construction buffer zone around the popular Tom Paul Trail, which cuts through the site.
Under state law Chapter 61B, selectmen had a set period of time -- with the deadline June 13 -- to match the developers' offer if they wanted the land. Officials waived their right of first refusal at the end of this week's meeting so the deal could go through.
Neighbors were so concerned about their property values near the Agnew property they formed "The Community for Keeping the Tom Paul Trail Natural" group.
The group came to selectmen in the last few weeks with an idea for fundraising through the Westford Conservation Trust to protect as much land as possible. If the town passed its right of first refusal to the conservation trust, they could make the deal happen, residents said.
Selectmen Chairman Andrea Peraner-Sweet referred to the community deal as "a moving target" she and her peers only had a few hours to review before the Tuesday night meeting.
Selectmen went into an executive session mid-meeting, just after opening a public hearing on the subject. They met for about an hour and a half to discuss the issue. They then returned to continue with other agenda items.
Then around 10:45 p.m., they met for another hour-long meeting behind closed doors. At times, Town Manager Jodi Ross exited the room with a selectman to discuss matters privately with the neighbors' group.
A final vote was presented by selectmen at about 12:15 a.m. Wednesday. Some residents asked to be allowed the right to comment around 12 a.m., since the hearing remained open and they had waited for hours.
Before heading into those private executive sessions, Selectman Kelly Ross asked Conservation Trust President Ron Gemma if he wished to back down, given Guthrie's modified proposal for the site.
Gemma said his goal is to always place as much land under conservation restrictions as possible. He said he believed in the neighbors' proposal offered by Kevin Cripanuk, a resident leading the community-action group.
Cripanuk said to make the deal happen, as a last resort, nine anonymous donors would pledge $700,000 to make their proposal a reality.
There were sighs and shaking of heads from neighbors Wednesday morning when the vote finally came in. Selectmen thanked the approximately 20 remaining residents for their efforts, and said they recognized the hard effort put forward. One resident stormed out of the room in anger.
Cripanuk, however, said he was optimistic following the meeting. He said his team's efforts ultimately had an impact.
"Because we pushed for improvements in conservation, we went from potentially 10 houses down to three. We went to a 50-foot buffer," he said. "At the end of the day, the community won, and that's important."
Selectman Ross said he "felt really bad" for the neighbors who worked so hard on the proposal. He and his colleagues echoed in their reasoning they felt the deal was, in the end, too risky. Peraner-Sweet added she had to go with the deal she knew would work best for the town.
"Nobody got everything they wanted," she said. "It's all about risk assessment. ... I had 20 acres of land that would be preserved that I can have in my hand, free of risk, free and clear."
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