CHESHIRE -- More than 130 signatures have been gathered on a petition circulating around town proposing the sale of 440 acres of land off West Mountain Road to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The petition is to be presented to Selectmen tonight by Zoning Board member Thomas Zappula. This is not the first time the issue has been raised in town, though. The potential sale has appeared as an item on town ballot twice before -- most recently in 2011 -- but was voted down by residents on both occasions.
Advocates for the sale say Cheshire could make up to $1 million by selling the property, in addition to payment in lieu of taxes at five to 10 thousand dollars a year. With the petition already over the required 100 signatures, it seems residents will again be given another say in the matter.
"I look at it as a transfer of the land from the Water Department, who's controlling it now, to the state," Zappula said. "This way, it benefits the whole town rather than only water users; it's going to end up reducing the tax rate no matter what people will save."
Zappula said about 95 percent of the people he's spoken to are interested in having the issue as a ballot item.
Both Zappula and town officials agree that funds from the state could be used to help pay down the $108,000 in yearly expenses the town is paying as a result on a $1.2 million judgment -- the result of interest accumulation racked up after a $500,000 ruling against the town for taking a 10-acre plot of land by eminent domain more than a decade ago.
In the past, Water Commissioner Francis Waterman has argued in favor of keeping the land. He said Monday that he and the Water Department are still "working diligently" to lay out a plan to see the land developed with green wind turbine technology.
"Selling the land to the state solves today's problems," Waterman said. "Keeping the land for the future prolongs the potential gain. This is what the taxpayers said to do, and it's what we're pursuing. If the land sees development, the cost of energy will go down for everybody."
According to Waterman, the land is protected by Article 97, with a Conservation Restriction, and many other towns and municipalities are seeking ways around similar issues to develop green energy producers on forested land.
Waterman said the Water Department is working with engineer Tighe and Bonde -- a company he said called the land "one of the most promising spots for development" they've seen -- to get a $35,000 wind feasibility study under way. The grant is offered by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Process Center and proposes to gather wind data at the site over a period of eight or nine months. Waterman said the study could begin soon, and if the data proves favorable, the town could become eligible for an additional $400,000 grant from the state for design and development.
Waterman added that keeping the town's additional water reservoir located on the property is a favorable option for the future, and he pointed to $125,000 the Water Department gave back to the town by selling timber harvested from the site as an example of revenue generation from the property.
However, Selectwoman Carol Francesconi said "the town itself does not benefit from the sale of lumber."
"It goes from the Water Department coffers to the town's, and then it goes back out into the Water Department," Francesconi said. "It's never offered to us, and that land is the property of the town of Cheshire, not the Water Department."
Zappula added that if the land were to transfer to the state, the town would retain access to the reservoir on the site.
"DCR has said the goal is to maintain it as part of the Greylock Reservation, to keep it forest land," Zappula said. "It's a part of what Cheshire is all about and will stay as it is."
To reach Phil Demers, email email@example.com.