Marjorie Dunlap planted the seeds of land preservation

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Dispatch columnist Warren Shaw was invited to deliver Dracut’s annual Earth Day/Arbor Day address on April 17. He used the occasion to focus on the town’s open-space strides, and also on the efforts of Marjorie Dunlap, for whom Earth Day in Dracut is now named.

Earth Day is such an important day here in Dracut. Because it gives us all a chance to think about what our community has done to protect the environment in our town from becoming what most other communities have become.

And if you think back a couple of weeks when every news cast was led by some reporter standing in knee-deep water talking about the unfortunate victims of flooding you have to wonder — would those communities have been better off allocating some of their financial resources saving open space?

Would they be better off with a few less subdivisions and a little more open space?

Without question, one of the benefits to preservation of open space that almost never gets talked about is the ability of open land to protect us from flooding.

For the record, this community had no significant flooding issues during a period when nearly 20 inches of rain fell on us in a very short period of time.

And almost every other community in our region did.

But preserving and protecting open space is about a lot more than flood prevention. it’s just a free extra that gets thrown into the deal.

A good land protection program:

* Protects the environment forever.

* It provides opportunity for local and sustainable agriculture to have a home and residents the choice to feed their families locally produced foods. In Dracut, these local farms provide employment, education and an esthetic value that adds to the quality of life here in town.

* The protected land base is the so-called rural character of our community that residents value above all else, and people running for office always pledge to be supporting.

* It helps keep taxes low, and by the way, Dracut has the lowest average residential tax bill for any town in the area. It helps keep our quality services affordable by limiting the demand now and forever. How many new schools would we have right now if all of the protected land had been developed into conventional subdivisions or even worse, developed into high density 40B housing that could have as many as eight units per acre?

This little town of ours could easily have as many as 1,500 additional housing units — at least two schools and many, many more service providers. And much higher tax bills because the development never pays for itself.

* And protected land also increases the value of the housing stock in the community because everybody likes to look at open space.

I read a study some time ago that insisted that homes with a view of protected farmland had a 30 percent value enhancement.

Just think of how different our image would be today if we had never started preserving open land.

Every town has an image. Dracut’s is without question its rural character created by open and protected farmland.

Without it, what would Dracut be known for?

Dracut got its start in land protection because of a lady of great vision named Marjorie Dunlap.

I can still remember like it was yesterday, when Marjorie climbed over a stone at the edge of her property and said to me.

“I know you’re on the Board of Selectmen and I need your help to preserve my farm.” Up until that point my only experience with Marjorie was to wave to her.

I grew up on a farm on New Boston Road, so I really didn’t know the Dunlaps that well. But I had been involved in land preservation as a member of the state’s APR board, so I knew all about it and I knew it was expensive.

What was different about this person that wanted to save her family farm was that she didn’t expect any money for it. She just couldn’t stand the thought that the beautiful piece of land that she and her family had been farming would end up a subdivision.

That day and that selfless vision was the beginning of all that has been done to preserve open space in Dracut, and it didn’t cost any taxpayer a dime.

Her gift of a conservation easement did much more than protect her land, it provided the opportunity for the late John Ogonowski to protect what was then “the avco” land and is now White Gate Farm.

You see, the programs that fund agricultural land preservation don’t like to invest in stand-alone parcels.

They like abutting property to be undeveloped, and I can tell you as one that was involved, that without Marjorie Dunlap protecting her farm, we would have never gotten over $1 million from the state to protect John’s White Gate Farm.

After these two preservation projects, attitudes began to change and we had more and more successes with open-space projects in town.

The work continues today, with our CPC working diligently on several more projects as we speak.

I knew Marjorie Dunlap very well and I can tell you that she would be proud of this community for the way they continued the cause. She would be so pleased with the number of farms that have been or will be protected. And she would be stunned at the fact that the residents were willing to tax themselves an extra 2 percent to continue her vision.

So happy Marjorie Dunlap Day everyone; it’s a great opportunity to remember what was probably the single greatest contribution to the town in its history, and it came from a person who never drew a paycheck.