Farmhouse future is the focus of Chilmark town meeting Monday

The future of the Tea Lane Farmstead is the focus of a special town meeting Monday. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Tea Lane farmstead will be the focus when Chilmark voters will gather for a special town meeting Monday to consider a relatively brief three-article warrant.

Discussion is expected to be lengthy regarding the town’s efforts to renovate and sell the historic 17th-century farmhouse and buildings to a resident farmer for $1, and lease the farm property for $20,000, provided the winning bidder agrees to perform certain renovations. The farm is located at the northwest corner of the intersection of Tea Lane and Middle Road.

Plans to renovate the farmhouse have been shot down by voters at town meeting on two previous occasions. Voters will now consider a more complicated plan involving a ground lease, $100,000 in community preservation act (CPA) funding, and a farm plan submitted by the applicant.

The special town meeting begins at 7:30 pm in the Chilmark Community Center.

The first article asks voters to authorize selectmen to lease the Tea Lane farmstead to a resident farmer, selected by the board, based on criteria developed by selectmen in conjunction with the town farm committee.

The same article authorizes selectmen to sell the farmhouse, barn, garage and two metal outbuildings to the resident farmer. The lease would be for an initial period of 75 years.

The applicant would be required to draft a farm plan for the property accepted by the farm committee and selectmen. The added value of renovations made to the farmhouse would be owned by the applicant, subject to the final approval of selectmen.

The second article asks voters to appropriate $100,000 in CPA funding for renovations to the farmhouse, under the administration of the historical commission. A separate draft agreement, not part of the article, states the recipient can realize 20 percent of the CPA funded improvement value per year.

In April 2001, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and the town of Chilmark combined to protect the 40-acre farmstead. 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.

Selectmen meet

At their regular meeting Tuesday, selectmen reviewed the draft lease for the farm, which also led to a discussion of the two warrant articles.

Selectman Warren Doty said that around 40 potential applicants attended an open house at the Tea Lane farmstead on January 7. He said the farm committee, appointed to help select the resident farmer, decided it would wait until voters had a say before the town solicits applications from interested farmers.

“What the farm committee wanted to do here, very specifically, was to see if this is good for the town, Mr. Doty said. “We want farmers to get excited and see if we can make a decision by this spring.”

Discussion Tuesday night revealed that there are some residents and town officials who think there are questions that need to be answered before the town takes action.

Former treasurer Judy Jardin questioned language in the article that gives selectmen the final authority to choose a resident farmer.

Ms. Jardin, who made the motion on the floor of a special town meeting in September to indefinitely postpone a proposal to spend $550,000 to renovate the farmhouse, harkened back to the 2001 town meeting when voters first agreed to purchase the property for $250,000.

Ms. Jardin said the motion approved 11 years ago stated that the Land Bank advisory board would approve the selection of the resident farmer.

The first version of the draft lease contained language stating that the town farm committee and Land Bank advisory committee would help choose the resident farmer. But all references to the farm committee and advisory committee have since been removed, Ms. Jardin said, adding that the changes concerned her deeply.

“When was a decision made to change the process to narrow it down to three of you making the decision?” Ms. Jardin asked. “It strikes me as down and dirty.”

Mr. Doty said he resented the accusation, and he said the change was made to streamline the process and avoid redundancy. He noted that several farm committee members also sit on the Land Bank advisory committee.

“I don’t think it’s in any way down and dirty,” Mr. Doty said. “This is a process that has been, up to this day, convoluted… I object to that language. I think I have behaved in good faith.”

For the sake of fairness, Mr. Doty said he would recommend that the article be amended at town meeting to say that selectmen would choose the resident farmer in conjunction with the Land Bank advisory committee and in accordance with regulations set by the farm committee. “I am happy to do it if that makes the process better,” he said.

Building Inspector Lenny Jason said there were a number of lingering questions regarding the draft lease, and he suggested that the vote be postponed. “You have to give them something that gives them more answers than questions,” he said. “I just worry that you might be moving too fast.”

Selectman chairman Frank Fenner said next week’s vote will gauge public support for the current farmhouse plan. He said the specifics — like the final lease and the CPA agreement — would be nailed down later and put before voters again, probably at the annual town meeting in April.

“We need to know this is something the people can get behind,” Mr. Fenner said.

Police chief Brian Cioffi, a member of the farm committee, agreed. “We want to know what the town wants to do,” he said. “Does the town want to lease the property to a resident farmer or not. It’s a simple question.”

Voters will also be asked to rescind a vote taken at the special town meeting in September to spend $6,500 to repair the current harbormaster’s boat and appropriate $24,000 from the waterways improvement fund to purchase and equip a new boat for the harbor department.