Saturday, December 18, 2010

Hawthorne Farm Project: Secure Against the Natural Elements and Criminal Elements—But Not Public Criticism

I had to miss the public forum on the Hawthorne Farm project last week because I was attending the Garrison Keillor benefit performance for the Emily Dickinson Museum (coverage of that event to follow in a separate post).  I'll have more to say about Hawthorne as I recap some of Amherst's recent historic preservation controversies in the coming weeks.

In a nutshell, though, the story is this:  the Town purchased the approximately seven-acre former Hawthorne farm (1, 2) with Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds authorized at spring annual town meeting. The declared purposes were recreation—first and foremost, playing fields—and exploration of the possibility of affordable housing in the former farmhouse. This fall, the Town, having concluded that affordable housing in the existing structure was not an economically viable option, took out a demolition permit on the house and outbuildings, though insisting that this action was to a large degree pro forma, as it had neither specific plans nor the required funds for such an action (not to mention, for construction of new units). The Historical Commission, after a lengthy formal public hearing and equally lengthy subsequent deliberations, imposed a one-year demolition delay on the house and larger barn and asked the Town for firmer figures on the relative costs of adaptive reuse of the structures versus demolition and new construction for affordable housing. The Historical Commission and Fair Housing Committee plan to request CPA money to fund such a study at next spring's town meeting.  There the matter rests.

The demolition delay hearing revealed two areas of deep concern on the part of residents—abutters, in particular:  dismay at the prospect that the familiar buildings might be demolished, and more generally, a feeling that the public had not been adequately apprised of plans for the property (Town staff reject the latter assertion). The situation was complicated by the fact that the Town had promised an open forum on uses of the property, but for a variety of reasons (interpretations also differ), no such action took place prior to the demolition delay hearing.

The scope of the Historical Commission hearing was limited to the disposition of the structures, so last week's gathering, by contrast, was the first occasion for more wide-ranging debate between citizens and representatives of the Town.  (Scott Merzbach's article—below—summarizes the points of controversy and some of the key statements.) It raised many of the same issues about the buildings, and about the process. In addition, it provided a forum for those who reject the entire premise of the purchase and wish the land could be used for recreational purposes other than playing fields, or even resurrected as a working farm.

Frankly, I expect that those are non-starters:  the Town explicitly stated that it was acquiring the land for purposes of mainly active recreation though with the possibility of integrating various forms of passive or multigenerational recreation into the overall program.  The Open Space and Recreation Plan articulates the priority for playing fields (see, e.g. Sections 7 C and 8.3, 8.7).  However, the topography and presence of wetlands dictate that considerable areas of the parcel would have to be left open, and they could therefore presumably provide space for, say, walking trails, community gardens, and the like as subsidiary uses.  If the Town were interested primarily in open space or agricultural land, as such, then other parcels would have priority, as dictated by the Plan (e.g. sections 8.1, 8.2).  As for farming, this land has not been in active agricultural use for a good many years, and its soils are apparently not of a sufficient quality to merit protection under the high standards of the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) policy in any case.
Open Space and Conservation Action PlanHawthorne Farm is part of Circle 3
One concern on the part of Town staff was that extended custodianship of an empty property might allow it to suffer from deterioration and vandalism.  As the photos below show, the house and barns have recently been secured against the proverbial natural elements and anti-social elements.  As the forum at the Bangs Center shows, the project is still anything but impervious to criticism. Another public forum is tentatively scheduled for January.

the circa 1780-1830s farmhouse

the circa 1890 barn

the 1967 horse barn

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Scott Merzbach, "Some say soccer fields are a poor use of Hawthorne property," Amherst Bulletin, 17 December
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Robin said...

It is a shame that you missed the December 9 meeting--given the title of this blog. It featured a not-so-public process, with Stan Ziomek ridiculing those disagreeing with the soccer field "vision" presented and threatening Carol Betsch, managing editor of U Mass Press, with the police because she exceeded her allotted two minutes of free speech.

Please read Betsch's piece on the lack of process that has characterized this debate since the outset. It may be a non-starter as a historical preservation issue, but it offers a startling (and, to me, illuminating) example of the lack of transparency in town government.

Robin Karson
Amherst, Massachusetts

Citizen Wald said...

Yes, I would have been there, but I had to attend the Garrison Keillor Emily Dickinson event (the other half of the family's historical work). At any rate, I did read the reports in the paper and hear from people who were present.
The historical status (value) of the structure is a complicated issue, but after extended meetings, the Historical Commission, as noted, decided to impose a demolition delay (and it should be noted that Town staff did not oppose the measure). The Historical Commission and Fair Housing Partnership Committee are each proposing an appropriation of $ 10,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for a rigorous study comparing the cost of rehabilitation of the existing structure vs. new construction for the affordable housing component of the Town's plan for the property.