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With one voice, farm land saved

Estate's 62 acres cost town $22.5m

Ninety years ago, Marian Roby Case said: "We can keep the world beautiful if we all earnestly desire it to be so and will look for the way."

Wednesday night, Weston residents found a way.

In the largest turnout for a Special Town Meeting in nearly a decade, they unanimously decided to spend $22.5 million to preserve the farm that Case once owned.

The 790 registered voters who packed the high school auditorium and gymnasium answered "aye" in nearly one voice when asked whether they wanted to buy the Case Estates from Harvard University.

The audience seemed to hold its breath for a moment as the moderator asked for "no" votes. None came. The room burst into loud applause and wild cheering that died down only with the bang of the moderator's gavel and a cry for order. After the meeting, supporters of the purchase embraced, and a few cried with happiness and relief.

"I was a little surprised to get a unanimous vote, but not surprised to see that it passed," said Brian Donahue , who as a member of the Community Preservation Committee had advocated for the purchase. "Now comes the hard work of seeing how much we can keep."

The 62 acres of rolling fields and forest straddle Wellesley Street near the center of town. Selectmen have said that the town may sell off as many as 10 parcels to recoup part of the cost. The board's chairman, Michael Harrity , told voters that he hoped that some of the purchasers would then donate the land back to the town.

The cost to taxpayers could also be defrayed by a campaign launched last month by the nonprofit Case Fund. The group already has nearly $1 million in pledges, fund board member William Brady told Town Meeting before the vote. Brady said they range from six-figure donations to spare change collected outside Omni Supermarket.

"The first pledge was $10 from my youngest child," Brady told attendees. "Of course, that was quickly doubled by her older sibling."

Brady and the other five people who spoke in favor of the proposal were received with hearty applause. No one spoke in opposition.

Wednesday night's turnout was the largest for a Special Town Meeting since December 1997, when residents voted 698-410 against participating in a rail trail.

Weston has until the end of the month to iron out details about the purchase and check for any significant problems that would lower the value of the property. Until recently, the land was used by Harvard's Arnold Arboretum as a test site for plantings. The university offered it to the town at the same price it said a developer had been willing to pay.

Town Meeting also voted to spend an additional $900,000 to bring two houses and a barn on the site up to code and to clear away brush and invasive plants.

Harrity said after the meeting that the town and Harvard were still discussing who would pay to remove asbestos that was found in several buildings on the property. The town is having the property tested for lead and arsenic, which were popular pesticides when the property was used as a farm.

"We're just completing our evaluation and making sure there are no late or unseen problems with the property," Harrity said.

Town Meeting came a day after residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of a debt exclusion overide to borrow $14.5 million for the Case Estates purchase. The remaining money will come from funds and loans obtained through the Community Preservation Act .

"We're very much in favor of this. It's our one chance to save a historic, beautiful part of town. It's intended to be used for public use, for education," said Joann McLaughlin , shortly after voting on Tuesday with her husband, Robert , at St. Peter's Episcopal Church .

Mike Curley , 46, and his wife , Pat Bellanca , 45, said they just moved to Weston.

"We came out here in part for the open space," said Curley, outside the polls at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church . "The fact of the matter is . . .," he said. "Taxes are insanely high anyway," his wife finished.

Carole Wiley , an artist, said that the town had a responsibility to buy Case Estates.

"I think it's important to preserve open land. And Weston is a wealthy community and can afford to do so," said Wiley, 56. "That doesn't mean that the use is exclusive to Weston. . . It should be open and available for people from other communities."

Voters opposed to the purchase refused to give their names. One said she didn't fear a housing development on the site, as it would be in the developer's interest to preserve the beauty of the land.

Several others objected to the additional taxes.

The owner of a house with the median value of $967,100 will pay an average of $57 a year more over the 20-year life of the bonds, assuming the town sells 10 house lots.

If the town recoups none of the cost, the tax burden would be $214 a year.

Stephanie V. Siek can be reached via e-mail at .

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