Selectmen weigh what to do next about Tea Lane farmhouse

Seeking answers after voters in September once again rejected plans to renovate the Tea Lane Farmhouse, Chilmark selectmen on Tuesday, October 18 met with the town attorney to discuss the options of rebuilding, leasing, or selling the property outright.

Ronald H. Rappaport, town counsel, reviewed options for the farmhouse prepared by Frank Fenner, chairman of the selectmen and also a member of the Tea Lane farmhouse committee. The selectmen made no decision.

Mr. Rappaport gave a brief history of the Tea Lane farmhouse project, beginning in April 2001 when voters at a special town meeting agreed to purchase the farmhouse and surrounding three-acres for $250,000. He showed selectmen a handout given to voters before the special town meeting in 2001 that said buying the farm fit into the town’s master plan and was considered a priority by the town advisory board.The handout also stipulated the farm purchase was meant to conserve the property and restore it to a working farm.

Mr. Rappaport said the article, ballot question, and handout clearly set out the town’s plans for the farm, which limits how much the town can now change the plans. According to state law, land taken for conservation purposes cannot be converted into other purposes, unless that change is approved by both voters at town meeting and a two-thirds vote by the state legislature, Mr. Rappaport said.

Selectmen seemed to concentrate their attention on the option of doing preliminary repairs to the farmhouse and then leasing it. Mr. Rappaport said the town could draw up a lease that would likely require the tenant to secure a mortgage with a bank. He said if the town did preliminary work on the project it might shorten the required length of the lease. If the town required a tenant to do all the work, the length of the lease would have to outlast the useful life of the repairs made by the tenant.

Mr. Rappaport said the lease can be tailored to account for all contingencies, with language built in that protects the town from taking on a large financial obligation if a tenant defaults.

Jane Slater, chairman of the historic commission, who attended the meeting, said the selectmen were focusing too much on finding the perfect tenant and not enough on preserving the historic farmhouse.

“I think you have to be impersonal about — just say we are looking for a person to qualify for this and this — and not get cow-eyed about who is going to be the ideal farmer,” she said.