Over the past several weeks, the Lexington Board of Selectmen have heard from a lot of concerned residents concerning the state of a request for proposal to operate a community farm on the town-owned Busa Farms parcel just over the Arlington border in East Lexington.
At their Sept. 24 meeting, selectmen took some time to try and answer public concerns and re-evaluate an RFP regarding the farm. Ultimately, the board saw the need to wait another year to complete the RFP and expressed the desire to create an Agricultural Committee to study the avenues for either a for-profit or not-for-profit organization to take over the farm.
Public Comments Addressed
The selectmen began by detailing all the questions they have received regarding the farm and its future, queries like, "What is the vision for farming on the land?" "What educational opportunities will there be for the town?" "Will there be a public hiking trail through the farm?" And, perhaps most important, "Will the farm be leased to a for-profit entity or to a not-for-profit organization?"
The selectmen dissected these questions by bringing up the idea of creating an Agricultural Committee to study the possibilities of what to do with the bulk of the almost . A stretch of land along Lowell Street will be used for affordable housing.
Regarding the Ag Committee, the board envisioned a three- to five-member board charged with studying the RFP bids and the benefits of for-profit and not-for-profit groups. Although there was a portion of the public that raised concerns that a for-profit enterprise would mistreat the land, Selectman Norman Cohen was quick to opine that this idea is “incorrect.” Selectmen chairwoman Deb Mauger backed Cohen's statement, adding the selectmen “won't be supporting one over another” and would base their decision on “what is best for the community.”
Selectman George Brunell expanded on these sentiments by adding that public comments have expressed ideals that “could be too slanted towards a community farm as a foregone conclusion,” wanting all offers to be examined jurisprudentially.
Making sure to note the difference between the RFP, which solicits proposals for how a prospective lessee would use the land, and the lease (the legal arrangement for use of the town's land) the selectmen detailed their ideal leasing standards for the Busa Land.
They determined that a shorter lease of five years would express the idea of a less committed community to any potential bidders. Opposite this ideal, a longer lease of 10 years could entice more organizations to bid as it would be a better opportunity for any entity looking to establish a longer lasting presence in town. The selectmen tossed around the idea of a 10-year lease with a five-year option, including a yearly clause to end the lease if the winner of the RFP violates its terms.
Waiting Another Season
What the selectmen ultimately decided—with too much still up in the air regarding the RFP—was to pass a motion to extend the current lease, allowing the Busa family to farm the land for another year as officials gather more prospective proponents and edit/improve the RFP. As Selectman Peter Kelley said, “It will be another season to let it go before we can seriously consider a proponent” to operate a community farm on the Busa Land.
That decision was informed by concerns the RFP was leaning too much toward enticing private groups, the board agreed to work on revising the RFP to have the proposal, “more reflect community farming and not just private farming” said Mauger.
In addition to this, the selectmen will add language to the RFP to make sure that whoever does win the bid will not use any dangerous farming techniques or chemicals that would damage the land. Finally, the selectmen toyed with the idea of adding language in the RFP that recommends requiring a food pantry donation from the farm, although this issue remains a subject on internal debate.
What About Organic?
As well, the selectmen briefly addressed the issue of an all-organic farm that was brought to them by several concerned citizens. Mauger explained the board’s sentiments concerning this issue, saying attracing organic farmers is "such a big hurdle it might not be realistic.” While not completely off the table, the board doesn't envision the farm being used just as an organic one due to high costs in a tough market.
Two Comments from the Public -- and What Now?
After their conversation concerning the RFP, the selectmen took two more comments from residents.
Tourism Committee member Dawn McKenna, raised two points regarding her concerns about losing control over town-owned land that will be turned over to a third party.
“I'm concerned that the town bought and paid for this land which could go over to a third party,” she said, “And what will be the benefit to Lexington?”
Secondly, McKenna asked the Selectmen to “exercise a little caution” concerning the lease, recommending a maximum three-year lease instead of a five- or 10-year deal.
Next, Janet Kern, from the Lexington Community Farm Coalition, pushed the board to give special preference to a community-based farm.
“I encourage the board and committee to take a look at other community farms in the area,” Kern said, adding that a private farm is like building a bookstore in your community, whereas a community farm is like opening a library.
The selectmen ended the discussion with the promise that they’ll be adding an item to their agenda in the near future to decide how to best create the Agricultural Committee.