The future of Tea Lane Farm took a different course this week as Chilmark selectmen reviewed preliminary plans to lease the property as a farm as-is instead of spending money to restore it.
Under the new proposal, the town would lease the historic farmhouse for up to 99 years, using a resident homesite model similar to the Middle Line Road affordable housing project. The farmer tenant would be responsible for a long list of improvements that would be spelled out in the lease.
The lease-as-is plan is a major departure from the selectmen’s last proposal to spend $550,000 to restore the house to living condition, a plan that was turned down by voters this fall. It was the third time voters had nixed requests to upgrade the property, having rejected a $150,000 spending request at the annual town meeting in May and a $300,000 request at a special town meeting last fall.
The town collaborated with the land bank in 2001 to buy the farmhouse and surrounding land at the intersection of Tea Lane and Middle Road. Bobby Silva, who lived in the house, was given life estate. When he died in February 2010, a farm committee developed a plan to return it to a working farm.
The town owns the farmhouse and adjacent three acres; the land bank holds the title to the 48 acres of farmland. Under the new plan, the tenant would have to lease the farmland separately through the land bank. The land bank is currently leasing the land to Mermaid Farm and Dairy, but that lease is set to expire when a new tenant takes over.
Details of the lease agreement are still being worked out and the town plans to present a final proposal at special town meeting early next year. Meanwhile, the farm committee will begin meeting again and accepting applications for prospective tenant farmers. Applications are due in mid-January.
Selectman Warren Doty said he wanted town approval for the plan.
“We need feedback to know is this the right direction and does it make sense to everyone,” he said. “The part we don’t have any experience at all in developing a farm plan Most people we talked to say, ‘Don’t dictate to farmers what they have to do, let the farmer propose to us what they want to do.’”
The idea would be to have the person who leases the farmhouse commit to a series of renovations deemed necessary by the town, including securing the foundation, rewiring and installing new siding and a new roof. The exterior work would have to be done so as to maintain the historic nature of the building.
The proposal would also ask lease applicants to present a formal business, production and marketing plan for the farm.
Farm committee member and police chief Brian Cioffi asked if the business plan requirement was really necessary.
“What if the person doesn’t want to have a business? What if they just want to have a farm, raise some animals ... and live off the land?” he asked. “Is the town willing to go in there without having a business plan?”
Selectman and board chairman Frank Fenner said he’d like to see who is interested before making a decision about the business plan.
“I’m a little hesitant to go for a full-blown farm plan and get someone’s hopes up if the town is not going to back this scenario,” he said. “I would rather have a generally, ‘Yes, we have eight or 10 people interested in farming,’ and go to the town with a lease and say, ‘Will you charge us with the duty of going forward with this and selecting a farmer to fulfill this obligation?’ I just hate to get someone’s hopes way up when the town may say, ‘No, we don’t want to do this.’”
Community preservation committee member Pamela Goff said the new proposal was a step in the right direction but she wanted to make sure the lease period was long enough so the farmer could have an investment in the house and the land. She said she’d also like to see an architectural restriction placed on the house and suggested using CPC funds to help restore the exterior.
Judy Jardin suggested doing a farm visit for prospective farmers so “they know what they’re getting into and there is interest.” Mr. Doty said he would arrange a time for an open house.
In other business, selectmen approved changes to a revised Tri-Town Ambulance agreement. The new version solidifies Chilmark as the fiscal agent and grants the town the final say in personnel matters.
Aquinnah and West Tisbury, the other two towns the service serves, have already signed a preliminary revision, but Chilmark sent the agreement to town counsel for review. This second revision includes suggestions made by counsel and will now be sent back to the other two towns for approval.
The selectmen also approved a conservation restriction for two parcels of land off Meeting House Way owned by Richard Coleman. Concerned about adequate access to the public, the selectmen included a dormant easement in the agreement if either of the abutting land agencies, the land bank and the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, decide to expand their trail system and link them to the restricted area.
Attorney Geoghan Coogan, representing Mr. Coleman, said his client was open to the idea of the dormant easement rather than having one included now.
“I find it hard to say, ‘Let’s make a path to nowhere,’” he said. “If there was an abutting property that had a connection to it then great, we will connect through it, it’s a wonderful idea.”
The selectmen also approved spending $1,000 to prepare and issue a request for proposal to build a solar array at the town landfill.