.By Phyl Newbeck For The Essex Reporter
“Should the selectboard, on behalf of the town, pursue the purchase of all or portions of the property owned by the Underhill Jericho Fire Department located at 275 Browns Trace, also known as the ‘Rivers Property’?” That was the wording of the non-binding resolution on the ballot in Jericho last month. Voters approved the resolution 1,223 to 978, giving the selectboard their blessings to continue negotiating with the fire department, a process that has taken roughly a year and has been the center of a good degree of controversy.
The late Mary Alice Rivers deeded 125 acres to the Underhill Jericho Fire Department (UJFD) in 1986. The land includes a house, a barn and a gravel pit. Although the deed contains no restrictions, the minutes of meetings – which took place between Rivers, the UJFD and other community members – show that she did not want the land to be developed. There is some reference to the establishment of a park and a number of statements indicating she wanted the land to remain open.
Rivers died in 2012 and in late 2013, the property was listed on Zillow for $5.3 million. Outraged that the listing contained no development restrictions, Jericho resident Mike Kramer convened a group called Save the Rivers Property. Several meetings were held and the group petitioned the Jericho Selectboard to intervene. The fire department agreed not to sell the property before Town Meeting Day to give the town the opportunity to make an offer.
The March deadline passed without an agreement and the two groups negotiated throughout the summer. In August, the board offered the UJFD $1.24 million for the land and a month later department members voted to accept the offer. The fire department would hold a 30-year mortgage and the town would pay interest of 3.54 percent. UJFD would retain roughly 10 acres of the existing gravel pit to use for training purposes and the town would sell the existing house and barn. Fifteen acres of the property are zoned for high density and the town planned to send out a Request for Proposals to see if there was a developer who wanted to take on that portion of the land. The town envisioned the remainder of the property, which is referred to as “the gateway” as remaining undeveloped.
Initially the plan had been to put the decision in the hands of the voters but as Nov. 4 grew near it became clear there was insufficient time to provide residents with enough information to make an informed decision. Tim Nulty, Chair of the Jericho Selectboard, and Randy H. Clark, spokesperson for the UJFD, considered the results of the negotiations to be a win-win situation but not everyone was enthusiastic. On Front Porch Forum, some residents objected to the increase in taxes that they believed would come from the purchase. Others, upset at what they deem to be a lack of transparency of the fire department’s records, objected to any financial gain on the part of the department. Still others, including Kramer, felt that Rivers’ desire to keep the land open was being ignored. As a result, the Selectboard chose to make the ballot question a non-binding resolution.
Selectboard member Catherine McMains said the Board has not yet decided whether to go through with the initial $1.24 million offer.
“Based on the closeness of the vote, we don’t see a mandate to buy the whole thing,” she said “because you need to develop it to be cost effective. We see that people are interested in saving what we can and we will continue negotiations to do that.”
McMains noted that a number of people want the town to purchase the entire parcel but to do that would require a bond vote. “I can’t see how people would want to add that to their taxes,” she said. McMains hopes there will be consensus on what part of the land is deemed most important and if that gateway can be defined, perhaps a conservation easement can be purchased. The fire department has agreed to continue the conversation. “If we work with the land trust and the town to come up with a value for a conservation easement that can protect the gateway, the fire department can decide what to do with the rest,” she said.
Although previous negotiations were held in private so as not to jeopardize the proceedings, the Selectboard will now be holding public discussions about the land at their regularly scheduled meetings. “There are people coming to me and saying they know Alice really wanted the land open and expressing their disappointment with the fire department,” McMains said “but it’s their land and we can’t make them give it up. We need to have a public discussion about what we need to save and how to save it.”