THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

This land is their land?

Lincoln works to save 21 acres of farmland, and with it, a piece of its agricultural heritage

By Adam J.V. Sell
Globe Correspondent / January 24, 2010

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LINCOLN - “Excuse me, chicken.’’

Ellen Raja brushed one of her hens aside as she crossed the deck into her house to retrieve a fund-raising form. The bird had been recuperating in her home from a broken leg.

“Now it thinks it has privileges,’’ she said. “And it pretty much does.’’

Raja rents some of the farmland next door so her two llamas and her flock of sheep can graze. But these days, her livelihood and a part of Lincoln’s agricultural history hang in the balance as the town works with local conservation groups to save 21 acres south of Old Sudbury Road from development.

Owner Roy MacDowell Jr. notified the town last fall of his plans to remove the property from the state’s Chapter 61A program, which offers tax discounts for owners of agricultural land.

The town has until Feb. 27 to exercise its right of first refusal to buy the property, at a price of $3.1 million.

“We have a very short period to raise the money, but we’re cautiously optimistic,’’ said Geoff McGean, executive director of the Rural Land Foundation in Lincoln, which is spearheading an effort to raise $680,000 in donations.

“There’s some great wildlife benefits, very important trail connections that will lead people through this property down into Weston’s conservation land.”

Proponents hope Lincoln voters will approve up to $1 million in bonding, with the balance coming from the Community Preservation Committee, local conservation organizations, state agricultural funds, and additional donations.

Preserving the land would keep intact a corri dor of conserved and undeveloped land stretching from Concord through Lincoln and into Weston, McGean said.

McGean said saving the MacDowell property would be another contribution to Lincoln’s history of protecting open space.

“This is one of the last remaining pieces of farmland in town,” he said. “It’s part of preserving Lincoln’s agricultural heritage.”

So far, $250,000 has been promised by the Rural Land Foundation, the Lincoln Land Conservation Trust, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which operates nearby Drumlin Farm. “We’ve got a very strong neighborhood support for this - we’re hoping it can be done in a short period of time,’’ McGean said.

On Jan. 28, Drumlin Farm will host an event where local residents can learn about the effort.

“The community has really pulled together,’’ said Drumlin Farm’s director, Christy Foot-Smith. “What a wonderful opportunity it is for the town of Lincoln to preserve valuable conservation land.’’

By putting a permanent agricultural restriction on 56 acres of Drumlin Farm land, the organization hopes to raise as much as $560,000 from the state, all of which would go toward preserving the MacDowell property.

Selectwoman Sarah Mattes said the Board of Selectmen is waiting to see if the private funding is there before seeking approval for a $1 million debt exclusion of Proposition 2 1/2 at the March 27 Town Meeting. The measure would also go before voters at a special election two days later.

“We have to decide if the private fund-raising has reached a level at which we can go to the town,’’ she said.

That’s a lot of ifs, but Mattes said Lincoln has a reputation for supporting agriculture.

“So far the town has never said no,’’ she said. “The town has been investing in land for many, many years, and it has this strong commitment to agriculture.’’

The land’s owner said he, too, wants the parcel to remain farmland. MacDowell said he was sellling the land because he and his wife are getting older, and maintaining the land has become too difficult.

“We’re helping identify potential donors to the cause,’’ MacDowell said. “Right now it’s a collaboration. Neighbors and private people who want to see it preserved, including myself.’’

MacDowell said he accepted the town’s appraisal of the land, which he thought was lower than the land was actually worth, in order to help keep it affordable for the town. MacDowell said he leases 3 or 4 acres to Raja for a nominal fee.

Raja said her job is on the line. If the land is bought and conserved, Raja Farms will continue to produce lambs and wool for sale. If the land is bought and developed, it’s game over.

“I think it might shut me down, as far as the sheep business goes,’’ she said. The eggs she harvests from the chickens might still be feasible on just her own land, but the sheep business would be done with.

And Raja is worried, too, about what it means for the town to lose land that has been farmed since Colonial days.

“I don’t know anybody who isn’t enormously grieved of the prospect that it would go into houses,’’ she said.

“I’m a custodian of this land. This was a farm before I came, and I hope it will be a farm after I leave it.’’