Valley Dispatch Correspondent

DRACUT — Town Meeting voters defeated an article Monday night that would have authorized the appropriation of $1.4 million in Community Preservation Act funds to purchase a conservation restriction on a 27.7-acre parcel of farmland on Avis Avenue.

After first defeating it by voice vote, a group of voters asked for a show of hands, which then turned into a hand count of voters on each side of the article. The article was defeated, 175-104.

It was the only article that generated any substantive discussion during an annual Town Meeting that lasted less than 90 minutes.

Helen Dunlap, chairwoman of the Community Preservation Committee, explained the article would help the town secure “nearly 30 acres of prime farmland” known as the Alden & Esther Fox Property. Dunlap said the family “very much wants to preserve this farmland and we have the Community Preservation Act funds to accomplish this goal.

“Most of you know the main reason Dracut voted in the Community Preservation Act a dozen or so years ago was to allow us to save as much as possible of our remaining open space, especially our significant farmland.”

Dunlap said the property is mostly hay fields now, but “because of soil and topography, is prime farmland. It would be a shame, a crime even, to use this land for anything other than farming.”

She said the committee has been working since March with members of the Fox family.

“They want to preserve the farm in honor of Alden and his wife, Esther,” she said. “The plan is for the town not to purchase the land, but the development rights. We will then put a conservation restriction on it, which then becomes a part of the deed. This will ensure the land is never developed. The family can keep the land or sell it to a farmer. That is up to them.”

Dunlap said the committee has not been able to reach agreement with the Fox family on the fair market value of the land.

“If we were to offer the family the value in the original appraisal, they would not accept it and we could not preserve the land,” Dunlap said. “That’s why we are asking you to approve up to $1.4 million so we have the flexibility of getting further appraisal work done.”

She conceded that “I know this is not the best way to do this, but given the circumstances, it is the only way to preserve this land. If Alden Fox were not 95 years old, we would simply wait until June Town Meeting to bring it before you. We want to make sure he sees his wish fulfilled. This is prime farmland in our midst. Further generations will thank us. They’ll thank you. They’ll thank the Alden Fox family for having the wisdom and foresight to preserve this land.”

Residents who spoke were divided between one group that wanted to preserve open space and farmland and another that questioned why the town should spend $1.4 million without acquiring the parcel.

“We should vote for this and save this farmland,” said Karen Merrill of Clyde Avenue. “I have lived in Southern California where houses are five feet away from each other. I don’t want to live like that. We should preserve this and retain our open space.”

Selectman Joe DiRocco, whose board had no recommendation on whether the article should be passed, said, “I didn’t support this article because the appraisal came in much lower. The negotiations have been going on for a while. They’re trying to get more money out of it. For that reason, I couldn’t support it.”

Assistant Town Manager Ann Vandal said the town would still have about $5 million in Community Preservation funds even if it purchased the conservation restriction.

“We have written a conservation restriction specifically for this land,” Dunlap said. “It can only be farmed. It has to kept open…We are buying the development rights. It cannot be developed. It’s in perpetuity. Forever.”

Ed Pitta, of Mill Road, said: “I don’t think anyone here opposes farmland. What we’re asking about is the value being asked to place on the land. This will cost us $54,000 per acre. Previously, other similar purchases were about $30,000 per acre. The concern going forward is this will be the going price for these types of restrictions.”

David Simpson of Pelczar Road added: “I’m very much in favor of the town purchasing open land. I love spaces that are available in the town of Dracut, but I cannot see spending $1.4 million for a piece of paper.”

In other business, voters:

* Dismissed Article 3, which would have adjusted salaries and compensation of the town moderator at $500, and selectmen and School Committee members at $2,000 each.

* Dismissed Article 4, which would have transferred a parcel of land at 2197 Lakeview Avenue to the Dracut Housing Authority for five years

* Unanimously approved Article 5, which allows any Dracut resident who is in active duty and called overseas with a car registered in town for at least 45 days to be exempt for excise tax for that year

* Approved Articles 6-10, which authorized spending various amounts of Community Preservation Act funds

* Approved Article 12, a zoning bylaw amendment which allowed assisted-living facilities with a special permit from the Planning Board

* Approved Article 13, a zoning bylaw amendment which adds light vehicle sales as an allowed use with a special permit from selectmen with site-plan review

* Approved Article 14, which adds indoor shooting ranges as an allowed use in zoning district B-4 under the heading “business uses”

* Referred Article 15, which would rezone the rear portion of the property at 970 Broadway Road from residential 1 to Industrial 1, to the zoning bylaw review committee

* Approved Articles 16-22, which dealt with accepting a series of streets.