Chilmark will consider options for Tea Lane farmhouse

An aerial view of the Tea Lane farm house property and surrounding fields. — Photo courtesy of Google map

Chilmark selectmen on Tuesday contemplated the future of the Tea Lane farmhouse. The discussion followed the rejection by voters at a September 26 special town meeting of plans to renovate the historic farmhouse.

The article called for the town to refurbish the 17th century farmhouse at a cost of $550,000 and lease it to a resident farmer. But voters agreed to postpone the plans indefinitely on a motion made by former town treasurer Judy Jardin.

Ms. Jardin at the meeting Tuesday questioned if it was economically sound to spend $550,000 to renovate the house for one family, and noted the economic climate has changed since voters agreed to purchase the land at town meeting in 2001.

The motion was approved after almost no discussion or debate. It was the second time in a year voters rejected a plan to renovate the Tea Lane farmhouse; last September voters denied a plan to spend $300,000 to repair the farmhouse.

On Tuesday selectmen noted that the lack of discussion at the special town meeting on Sept. 26 offered little guidance as to what the townspeople wanted to do with the farmhouse.

Chairman Frank Fenner, also a member of the Tea Lane farmhouse committee, said he put together a list of different scenarios for the future of the farmhouse, and submitted the list to town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport.

Mr. Fenner said the scenarios ranged from remodeling the building, leasing it out long-term, and selling the property outright. “Before we spend a lot of time on one particular scenario we need to know the ramifications of each,” he said.

Mr. Fenner noted the town’s choices may be limited by a number of factors. Faulty wiring and lead paint, for example, may prevent the town from simply offering a long-term lease without first making repairs.

And the town would likely have to lift several conservation restrictions on the property before selling it, which might require a vote from the state legislature. “There are a lot of moving parts here,” he said.

Clarissa Allen, owner of the Allen Farm, said she supported Mr. Fenner’s plan to consider several different scenarios and review the legal repercussions of each.

Ms. Allen said she worried about spending so much money to renovate the farmhouse and suggested the town come up with a plan to offer the property to a farmer without picking up the tab.

“Things have changed very much since we acquired the land, our economy is different, we have Middle Line now,” she said, referring to the town-sponsored affordable housing project.

“I strongly feel that if we can offer a long-term lease or sell this to a farmer that person would have enough invested into it they would be able to borrow and develop it into a farm. I think it could be a great dairy farm again,” she added.

Jane Slater, chairman of the town historic commission, said she heard grumblings before the special town meeting that some people were opposed to spending money to renovate the farmhouse.

“I know the vote was only 48 people, but those people feel strongly about what they wanted to do,” she said. “I think you are going to have to really educate the people; that might change the intensity of their negative intent.”

Ms. Allen conceded the special town meeting did not offer insight into what voters wanted with the farmhouse, although it was clear they wanted more time.

“The town meeting didn’t say anything with great clarity except for: whoa, let’s think this through more and better define it,” she said.

In the end selectmen agreed to invite town counsel to appear at their next meeting on Oct. 18 to review the various scenarios and answer all the lingering legal questions.

In April 2001, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and the town of Chilmark combined to protect the 40-acre Silva farmstead on Middle Road in Chilmark at the northwest corner of the intersection of Tea Lane and Middle Road.

Under the terms of a combined purchase, the town purchased the farm house and farm buildings and three acres of surrounding property for $250,000 from owners Walter, Elmer, and Robert Silva and Clara Rabbitt. The land bank purchased the remaining property.

Chilmark voters approved their portion of the purchase at a one-warrant-article special town meeting on April 23.

Bobby Silva was a familiar sight working in the fields or tending his cows. The agreement provided Mr. Silva with life tenancy at his farm.