CHESTERFIELD — As the Select Board plans to sell four parcels of land at an auction next month, some people are asking town officials to reconsider their options — arguing that at least three of the properties, including a 16-acre plot on the Westfield River near the Chesterfield Gorge, should be protected.
The town obtained four parcels, including three through tax title, and has hired an auctioneer to sell them. The auction is scheduled for Nov. 14 at noon at the Chesterfield Town Offices.
In addition to the 16-acre parcel on River Road, a 37-acre parcel on East Street and a 27-acre property at Main Road are also of conservation value, said Sally Loomis, executive director of the Hilltown Land Trust. Last week, the town’s Select Board held a meeting over Zoom where it heard concerns about the auction, according to four people who attended the meeting.
“I think the request to the Select Board was, ‘Could you pull the properties of conservation interest from the public auction, particularly this River Road one?’” said Loomis, who was in the meeting. “Or, if that’s not possible, ‘Could you delay the auction?’ Because there is an effort to purchase the land for conservation purposes, but it’s a scramble to do that.”
The Select Board said in a statement Tuesday that it has historically auctioned off properties obtained through tax title, in which the town claims legal ownership of the properties because of unpaid taxes.
“This procedure is consistent with (Massachusetts General Laws) and returns the properties to the tax roll, benefiting Chesterfield’s taxpayers, and provides a one-time infusion of revenue to the Town to offset the prior loss of tax revenue,” the statement said. “It also is the fairest and most transparent method of sale with all interested parties being given equal opportunity.”
Members of the Select Board, as well as the Chesterfield town administrator, did not respond to multiple requests for comment over several days last week, other than to send a written statement.
Over 78 miles of the Westfield River has been designated by the federal government as a National Wild and Scenic River. Carl Cignoni, Chesterfield’s representative and chairman of the Westfield River Wild and Scenic Advisory Committee, said this designation was given because the river has “outstandingly remarkable values,” such as its water quality, fishery, watershed, and flora and fauna, as well as its beauty.
Cignoni said the advisory committee became aware of the auction only when it noticed posted signs late last week. Cignoni said the River Road parcel is right near the Chesterfield Gorge and fronts the Westfield River.
“I was surprised,” he said. “All of us … were surprised to find out about it that way.”
The parcel is on River Road, also known as the East Branch Hiking Trail, which goes from the Chesterfield Gorge to the Knightville Dam — creating “a continuous stretch of wilderness and river,” Cignoni said. The River Road parcel extends halfway into the Westfield River.
Loomis, of the Hilltown Land Trust, said that River Road, located on the east branch of the Westfield River, is “important, recreationally, as lots and lots of people fish, run, walk, bike, cross-country ski, snowmobile along that pathway.” She said development on the road could negatively impact the visitor experience. The Chesterfield Four Seasons Club is located on River Road near the gorge.
Meredyth Babcock, outreach coordinator for the committee who was also at the meeting, said the River Road parcel “is surrounded by protected land.” Cignoni said a private developer on the parcel could potentially “break up the continuity” of the wilderness along the river.
At its Oct. 26 meeting, the Select Board cited an opinion from 2012 written by Chesterfield’s town counsel that states the town is legally mandated to auction off the land in question, Cignoni said. Loomis said the board committed on Monday to clarifying with town lawyers if it must sell the parcels through auction.
According to Cignoni, there are conservation organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, who are looking to bid on at least the River Road parcel. But conservation organizations can only bid so high, “and if somebody with really deep pockets wants to buy it with an idea of trying to develop it, they could get it. It would be very difficult to develop, but not impossible,” Cignoni said.
Loomis said the town may gain more revenue selling the parcels at fair market value to a conservation group or the state than at auction, if allowed to by law. He said the state could also buy the property from a conservation organization since it cannot bid at auction. He said that perhaps the best option is for the town to keep the land and place it under conservation.
“And even that’s a little risky, because they could decide to put it up for auction later,” he said.
Cignoni said stakeholders at the meeting also asked the Select Board to involve relevant organizations in decision-making processes about future land coming into the town’s possession since the committee learned about the scheduled auction late.
Kurt Heidinger, president and executive director of Biocitizen Inc., an educational organization that teaches youth about ecology and the environment, said the Select Board made the argument at Monday’s meeting that some who live around the Gorge may not want added attention to the area if it was protected, and that open-space reduces much-needed tax revenues for the town. Heidinger said one board member made the point that the tax revenue on the River Road property is negligible and that the property is likely undevelopable.
“The conservationists were like, ‘Well in that case, just take it off the list, because I think everybody agrees that the best use is for the public,’” Heidinger said. “And they started to, just, struggle there … they started to pretend that they had no power to do anything. Which nobody actually believed.”
Heidinger said that the Select Board should find ways to capitalize on the existing natural resources to raise tax revenues for the town. He noted that the Gorge was “possibly one of the most frequented of all open-space areas” in western Massachusetts this summer. He said the Chesterfield General Store was “jammed” this summer and it’s “just up the hill from the Gorge.”
“So, the fact is, is that there is an economy that they’re not really recognizing,” he said.
Michael Connors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.