Select Board, ConCom ponder land swap for new sports fields

A plan to swap some hilly town-owned land for two smaller, flatter pieces of conservation land that are suitable for playing fields won unanimous approval from the Select Board last week. But a day later the Conservation Commission greeted the idea with considerable skepticism.

Town Administrator Tim Bragan said he and Liz Allard, Harvard’s land-use administrator and conservation agent, began the search for possible sports field sites after the state nixed putting new fields close to the town well. The two officials considered every piece of conservation land in town, Bragan said, and found only two suitable areas—the Stone land on Old Mill Road and part of the Abbot-Reed-Powell land on East Bare Hill Road near the intersection with Brown Road. Both are currently under the jurisdiction of the Conservation Commission.

In a related change, the field on Ann Lees Road would be reconfigured for softball, with the work expected to be done this fall so the field would be ready for play next spring.

The planned swap

As Bragan described the plan to the Select Board at its Tuesday, Sept. 5, meeting, the town would take over the 6-acre Stone land to build a new dual-purpose field for soccer and lacrosse. The erstwhile farm field is flat, close to the road, and mostly open, with some woods along two sides.

The town would also seek 6 or 7 level acres near the front of the 33-acre Abbot-Reed-Powell land. Bragan said the town would hold this acreage for possible future use as playing fields and create a parking area at the entry to the land. The other 27 acres of the Abbot-Reed-Powell Land would remain protected conservation land.

Finally, Bragan said, the town should acquire the 1.77-acre Reuben Reed land in the town center, east of Mass. Ave. between the Harvard Realty office and the blinker, including the tiny cross street often called No-name Road and part of the grassy island beyond it. Bragan said he has long believed this land should be treated as part of the Common.

These three parcels add up to 15 acres at most, and all are protected by Article 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution. To take land out of this conservation classification, state law requires a town to put at least as much new land into conservation. In addition, the swap must be approved by the Conservation Commission, a two-thirds vote in Town Meeting, and a two-thirds vote in the State Legislature.

To replace the land Harvard would be withdrawing from conservation, Bragan proposed turning over the Warila land to the Conservation Commission. This 32-acre hammerhead parcel on Stow Road east of Route 495 abuts other areas that are already under the jurisdiction of either ConCom or the Harvard Conservation Trust, a private nonprofit organization. The Warila land’s narrow frontage on Stow Road serves as access to those areas, but the Warila land itself is town land, under the jurisdiction of the Select Board.

Select Board members were enthusiastic about the proposed swap. Stu Sklar described it as “a win-win,” and Kara Minar responded, “I think this is great.” Minar asked whether the restrictions on the Reuben Reed land, including the ban on parking there, would go away if the area became town land, and Bragan said yes. The board voted unanimously to approve the swap, and Bragan said he expected approval from ConCom the following night.

ConCom has doubts

But when Bragan again summarized the plan for the Conservation Commission Thursday, Sept. 6, its members had a very different reaction.

ConCom member Paul Willard was particularly concerned with the Reuben Reed land in town center. He recalled that Reed’s will said specifically that the land was never to be used for parking, to which Bragan replied the town did not intend to do that. “We want to use it like part of the Common,” Bragan said, pointing out that ConCom had already approved the little island as the perfect place for the boys baseball team to hold its Christmas tree sale this year.

“It’s a perfect piece of land to be let alone!” Willard shot back, adding that he’d been acquainted with Reed. Reed had known full well, Willard said, that having a piece of conservation land in the middle of town would someday start a ruckus. With regard to the Stone Land, Willard said its former owner, Norman Stone, had wanted nothing built on the land.

ConCom member Wendy Sisson acknowledged that the Stone Land had in some ways “looked like playing fields from the beginning.” But she was reluctant to swap any of the Abbot-Reed-Powell land. “It’s a neighborhood place that a lot of people use daily,” she said, adding that the neighbors had been good stewards of that land. By contrast, the Warila land is covered with almost impenetrable thickets of recent growth because it had been heavily logged before being sold to the town, she said.

Sisson pointed out that ConCom had spent thousands of dollars from the Community Preservation Fund to clear Abbot-Reed-Powell’s open areas of invasive plant species like Oriental bittersweet, which were overrunning the former pasture area.

“Because of the promise that land will be protected in perpetuity,” Sisson said in a later phone conversation, “the law makes it very difficult to take land out of conservation.” ConCom members took no vote on the proposed swap. Instead, they asked Bragan to come back to the commission once Town Counsel Mark Lanza finishes looking into the deeds and other documents pertaining to the land to see if there are legal limitations on the parcels.

The terms for a land swap will have to be settled soon if the plan is to be included on the warrant for a vote at the Oct. 22 Special Town Meeting.

The Conservation Commission did approve allowing parking on No-name Road in town center on a one-time basis this fall for vehicles that may be involved in the filming of “Little Women” in Harvard. The vote was 4-1, with Willard opposed.

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