Westwood Follows Dover in Recommending Preservation of Open Space at Hale


Image of small pond at Hale in Westwood, by Alvin Kho from Flickr 

At Westwood’s Select Board meeting of Monday, January 24, 2022, Westwood’s Hale Task Force publicly stated its strong support of preservation of Hale Education property in Westwood. It recommended that Select Board present an article at Town Meeting to obtain funding for that purpose.

On behalf of the task force, Mr. Jack Wiggin gave a presentation at the Select Board Meeting in which he described the task force’s reaction to a proposal which had originated from Hale a few years ago. 

The task force’s public recommendation on Monday follows a memo of findings and recommendations that Mr. Wiggin noted the Task Force submitted to Select Board last week on January 18, 2022.  It also comes on the heels of the unanimous and enthusiastic decision by Dover’s Board of Selectmen to place before Dover voters this year the issue of Dover purchasing a conservation restriction from Hale.

In 2019, Hale Education (then called, Hale or Hale Reservation), approached the towns of Westwood and Dover with the proposal that each town purchase a conservation restriction for Hale’s land located within each town. As part of Hale’s strategic plan to ensure its long-term financial stability and to permanently protect its land from development, Hale - a private, non-profit company - sought to unlock the value of its land, appraised at $46 million. Hale offered each town a conservation restriction in exchange for $10 million from each. Hale would additionally pursue a private fundraising campaign for the balance of what was needed.

A conservation restriction is a permanent restriction on land to preserve it in its natural, scenic, open, agricultural or forest condition, while permitting public recreational use. It would prohibit or limit construction and other activities, such as development, that are detrimental to the purpose of the conservation restriction.

Westwood’s Hale Task Force was created in 2019 to investigate Hale’s proposal that the town purchase a conservation restriction on the 500+ acres of Hale’s undeveloped land in Westwood. It was charged with providing a recommendation to Select Board on the proposal.

Along with Mr. Wiggin, members the Hale Task Force include Select Board Clerk John Hickey and Planning Board Chair Chris Pfaff and nine other members who were listed in Mr. Wiggin’s slide presentation. Ex officio members of the task force are Hale’s Executive Director Eric Arnold and Town of Westwood staff.

Representatives of Westwood Land Trust were given opportunity to comment. President Karen Manor Metzold noted four reasons to support a conservation restriction at Hale. First, it is the top of her organization's "critical properties to preserve list" as the largest unprotected property in Westwood, comprising seven percent of land in the town. Second, it abuts other protected lands and protects half a mile of frontage and scenic views. Third, Hale is a cooperative land owner who wants to preserve the land. Fourth, Hale is a valued community partner that has provided public access to its lands for over 100 years. 

Ms. Nancy Dempze, also from Westwood Land Trust, noted that, "If you happen to see turkeys walking around Westwood or a lot of deer or coyote or fox, the reason why you're seeing that is because there are large contiguous parcels of land that have been preserved. The reason why you know you're home in Westwood when you're driving along Gay Street or Grove Street or Summer Street or Hartford Street is because you've started passing some open fields. You're not in Newton or Needham, or all the other suburbs [] all around us that are all built up, every last acre."

In 2019, Hale similarly proposed a conservation restriction to the Town of Dover, where Hale owns over 650 acres of undeveloped land. In a meeting  last week of the Dover Board of Selectmen, Dover’s Land Use Director Courtney Starling presented a detailed a list of benefits of a conservation restriction from Hale:

  • Protecting the land from development at a cost of $10 million, well below the $35 million market rate
  • Reduction of town resources to manage and maintain the land where Hale retains ownership
  • Increasing the town’s negotiation power to increase local benefits from Hale’s programs and facilities
  • Mitigating future land development, even without owning the land
  • Premium access to Hale for recreation, including swimming and pond access and access to the trail network
  • Partnerships with the town’s Parks and Recreation Department, Council on Aging, and library
  • Outdoor programming for Dover’s schools and co-teaching opportunities for Dover-Sherborn and Hale educators
  • Contiguous open space for climate resiliency and wildlife
  • Water supply

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Ms. Starling also noted that Dover is working on strategic partnerships to help manage a conservation restriction. The Trustees of Reservations has offered to provide technical assistance and to hold and monitor the conservation restriction which will be a large cost savings. 

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has been identified as a potential funding source, and Dover will apply for a Landscape Partnership Grant worth $1.25 million which is reserved for projects of over 500 acres. Due to the fact that there are very few projects of this size in the state, Ms. Starling anticipates a lack of competition for the grant.

Ms. Starling reported on financial projections as well, noting that the average annual cost per Dover household would be $270.  Regarding ways to offset those costs to residents, Ms. Starling cited the possible DCR grant. She also noted the possibility of negotiating with Hale over land with low conservation value and selling it for residential use. A third offset could be private donations and assistance from conservation groups.

Dover Board of Selectmen member Robert Springett called it a “sweet deal,” a “no brainer” and a “lifetime opportunity." 

Board of Selectmen Clerk Robyn Hunter indicated support as well, and referred residents to Save Hale. The website was constructed by resident supporters of the conservation restriction.

Dover Board of Selectmen Chair John Jeffries noted the board’s enthusiastic support for the project and getting it done right. The board, however, shared a feeling that proposing an article for a vote at spring’s town meeting would be too rushed. Mr. Jeffries asked Hale’s executive director about any time sensitivity.

Mr. Arnold replied, “We understand that doing it right [] is better than doing it fast, and we get that, and we want the same outcome. . . . We started this conversation a few years ago and we know these things take time going through a process like this so we respect that. . . . I think our organization knows and can tell when a group is working hard towards an end - and we’re willing to work with you on that - and we also know when it’s not.” He suggested that Hale be included in mapping out Dover’s projected timelines to pursue a conservation restriction, to ensure that “it works for both of us.”

While Westwood’s Select Board has now indicated support of taking additional steps to pursue a conservation restriction with Hale, Westwood’s path forward appears less defined at this point than what Dover has already mapped out.

Mr. Hickey noted that a difference between deliberations in Dover and Westwood is that Hale’s land in Dover is undisturbed, while the Westwood side of Hale has already had some development. He brought up the possibility of using land for a recycling facility, for addressing an “outdated” Department of Public Works, and for “micro-housing for employees of the town.”

Westwood Select Board member Robert Gotti noted his support of the idea of the conservation restriction, as it aligns with Westwood's Comprehensive Plan and Open Space Plan. He would like to see more open conversation about the conservation restriction, so that people can get familiar with the needs, benefits, and borrowing impacts. He noted that except for Mr. Wiggin’s presentation at this meeting and the ensuing discussion, there has been no public discussion on the issue.

When a viewer questioned when there will be a public discussion forum, Select Board Chair Michael Walsh answered that opportunity for public comment will come after the task force comes back with recommendations.

In the meantime for Westwood, it appears that Town Administrator Christopher Coleman is charged with continuing to talk to Hale. In response to a question from Mr. Gotti regarding next steps to meet the town’s goals, Mr. Hickey replied that empowering Mr. Coleman to have a conversation is needed. 

Closing out the discussion on the topic for the night, Mr. Walsh noted that Hale has been important to Westwood's history and is important to its future. Regarding future action, he noted that Mr. Coleman has directions to continue negotiations.

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