NEWBURY — Residents who filled the meeting room at the Town Offices Tuesday described a decision by selectmen to waive the town’s right to buy the historic Plummer Homestead as “heartbreaking” and “extremely regrettable.”
The property, 277 High Road, abuts the Lower Green, the site of Newbury’s first settlers in 1635. The Plummer family traces its connection to the land back 11 generations, but the trustee now managing the property recently notified the town of a plan to sell it.
According to the notification received Sept. 12, developers Mark DePiero and John Morris want to buy 5.6 acres of the property currently under Chapter 61 A for $1.625 million, and the remaining 1.54 acre portion, including the centuries old Plummer family homestead and barn, for $500,000. Under the Chapter 61A statute the town is granted a first refusal option to meet DePiero’s offer on the 5.6 acres. With the 120 day deadline to exercise this option looming, concerned residents desperate to preserve the site asked selectmen in December to seek an extension to allow more time to raise money to protect it.
Selectmen Chairman JR Colby began by stating that the seller, James T. Connolly of the Parker River Realty Trust, had declined a request to extend the deadline by 60 days.
In a letter sent to Connolly, dated Dec. 23, Colby made the case for an extension citing the property’s historic value and as open space and wildlife habitat. However, Connolly contended “the trustee’s intention to sell the property has been known for well over a year, as far back as August 2018 when plan endorsement to divide the land was sought…” He noted that, according to the purchase and sales agreement, the buyers also must approve any extension, which they don’t.
A spokesman on behalf of Michele Augeri presented comments from the Cottage Road resident, who has been spearheading an effort to preserve the land for use as an environmentally sustainable burial ground. Augeri proposed using some of the $2.8 million from the town’s free cash to temporarily buy the land, with the understanding that the non-profit she was organizing would pay it back within a year. If they failed to do so, the town could sell it at full market price. Although the required public hearing wasn’t posted until late November and was held during the holiday season when many people are busy or away, Augeri was still able to raise $70,000 toward the effort. She contended her plan would give residents “a legitimate” chance to save the land.
In the past month, numerous residents have emailed selectmen pledging financial support for Augeri’s proposal. At Tuesday’s session an email read aloud from Mary Williamson of Salisbury promised $10,000 toward the cause. Sharon and Joseph Stichter pledged $500 to $1,000. Plummer descendant Helen Garland insisted her family had purposely tried to preserve the entire property as a part of Newbury’s common heritage.
“My family and I are prepared to donate a significant sum to help preserve this incredibly special space and heritage for residents and visitors alike,” wrote Garland, “Old places, open spaces, and character matter.”
After residents noted that there were five antique marble headstones on the land, Bruce Webster cited a state law that prohibits the disturbance of any cemetery more than 100 years old. Selectmen said they were unaware of any such burial ground, but residents insisted the headstones are visible from Cottage Road. Town Planner Martha Taylor encouraged residents to forward information to the Planning Board via www.townofnewbury.org.
Alan Ward and others urged town leaders to use “a more effective manner of communication” when properties of historic import come up for sale in the future.
But Colby said he felt the public had been made well aware of the plans. “To act surprised and throw it on us is totally unfair,” he said.
A Chapter 61A Notice of Intent to Sell appeared under the “new business” category of the selectmen’s agenda on Oct. 8 and on the Planning Board agenda Oct. 16. A public hearing was opened by selectmen on Dec. 10, continued on Dec. 17 and concluded on Jan. 7.
Town Administrator Tracy Blais said it takes two weeks to organize a town meeting and Selectwoman Alicia Greco felt there were “just too many hoops” to jump through in order to authorize the free cash expenditure before the deadline.
The statute states that within 120 days of the notice of intent to sell, a new purchase and sale agreement from the town must be sent to the landowner, endorsed, and returned by certified mail to the town. Selectmen are then given 90 days to execute the contract, the law states.
While it was Town Counsel Lisa Mead’s opinion that the statute implies that everything should happen within the 120 days, she felt the town could have entered into a purchase and sale this month that was contingent on a Town Meeting vote and sale within 90 days, Blais said after the meeting.
Frustration was apparent when the audience learned there is no preservation restriction in place to ensure the development of the Plummer homestead will reflect its historic character.
“We’re losing a gem of Newbury and we’re grieving,” said Jessica Brown.
“None of us takes any pleasure in this,” said Colby. He urged them to channel their frustration toward fueling the adoption of the Community Preservation Act. The town wasn’t interested when the CPA was proposed five years ago, but Colby is hopeful more residents will now see the value of imposing a tax levy surcharge of not more than 3% on real property to preserve more of Newbury’s history, protect key open space, and create more affordable housing and recreational spots in town.
For more information on the CPA visit www.communitypreservation.org.
Selectman Damon Jespersen was not present at Tuesday’s hearing.