WESTFORD -- Ebi Masalehdan tried unsuccessfully in 2016 to get approval for a farm-to-table restaurant on protected agricultural land he owns. He tried again with a modified plan in 2017, but once again could not secure enough backing. And now, Masalehdan will make his third push in four years to get approval for his proposal.
The Groton developer has a new set of plans for a restaurant on the former Drew Gardens property, located at 66-68 Boston Road, that he believes will finally gather the necessary support from the community.
This latest version, he said, proposes a two-story restaurant about one-third the total square footage of his first unsuccessful attempt. Unlike earlier plans, the latest iteration calls just for a restaurant and does not suggest an attached function hall.
The property has three parcels under agricultural preservation restrictions, commonly referred to as APRs, so Masalehdan would like the town to waive one of them before he could proceed with the restaurant. He said Tuesday that he is collecting signatures to put an article on the March 23 Annual Town Meeting warrant seeking the required waiver.
"I'm hoping that this time, March 23, people will see revision on the side of the restaurant and without the function hall, and hopefully they'll come to our aid and help us pass it," Masalehdan said.
In the 1990s, Westford paid to put APRs on the nine-acre property, meaning any use that minimizes agricultural viability is prohibited.
The spring 2016 Annual Town Meeting voted against waiving the APR in question. At that time, Masalehdan's proposal included a 38,000-square-foot restaurant with an attached function hall and promises to maintain portions of the land for farming. Opponents of the plan argued that converting portions of open space with a vacant building into a restaurant would damage the character of the town.
Later that fall, Masalehdan made a second push, but delayed it amid uncertainty from state officials on the project. The spring 2017 Annual Town Meeting then voted against waivers for a second time.
Masalehdan said his latest plan is for a 13,696-square-foot restaurant, which could hold about 190 people, with no function hall. Two of the property's three APRs would remain farmland, he said, and would grow crops used at the restaurant.
Despite the history, Masalehdan said he is optimistic about his chances. He said he worked with Keith Bohne, the property's former owner, to pick out crops, including 50 apple trees, 50 peach trees and 50 cherry trees.
"I think a lot of people have opened their eyes to see I really want to bring something to the town," he said. "I really don't see why people would oppose having one portion of the land put a restaurant in and bring some revenue to the town, make it beautiful. That's been my thing from day one: that I want to turn that land into gorgeous farm and a nice restaurant."
Masalehdan still has several logistical steps before Town Meeting can weigh in on his latest idea. He needs to collect 10 signatures from registered voters to trigger a citizen petition article, and even if that makes the warrant, selectmen can still decline to support it as they did in 2017.
Town Manager Jodi Ross said Wednesday that she had not had any formal communications with Masalehdan in recent months.
"It would be on the Town Meeting warrant if he follows through and submits a petition, and I think that would be a debate on the pros and cons," Ross said. "I think the biggest issue here is that town residents did pay taxpayer funds to establish three APRs. That is an obstacle for Ebi, how to get the town to release one of those and the state. There are challenges."
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