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Framingham's Eastleigh Farm to install private well after water billing controversy

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  July 25, 2012 12:25 PM

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Eastleigh Farm visitors enjoy an afternoon at the 114-acre expanse of land. The farm has come under fire recently since the town discovered a water meter was never installed for the business as part of a decades-old "gentleman's agreement."

Following weeks of controversial debate over the town starting to charge Eastleigh Farm for water, the Framingham Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday night to give local farm's owner Doug Stephan three months to install a private well servicing the agricultural lands.

The decision serves as a compromise to move past the controversial issue, which came to light recently when the town sought to install a cross-contamination flow device and found the farm had no water meter, meaning that the town was essentially footing Eastleigh's water bill of between $10,000 and $12,000 annually.

The lack of a meter stems back to easements negotiated decades ago, where the farm would be charged the "prevailing rate" for water - which, at that time, was nothing - for allowing the town to run water pipes through the farm.

"It's just one of these historical things we discovered," Framingham Town Manager Robert Halpin told the Globe previously, adding that the farm uses approximately 6,000 gallons of water per day.

Halpin recommended at earlier meetings that the town start billing the farm beginning July 1 of this year for water, but farm proponents said the new charge would put the already-struggling venture out of business.

However, after several meetings over the past few weeks between Halpin and Stephan, the farm owner agreed to install his new private well if the town does not bill him for water during the oncoming well designing, building and installing time period.

Selectmen agreed to the terms, putting in cautions to make sure the farm will speedily adhere to the negotiations. As long as Stephan makes the Nov. 1 deadline for the well installation, barring any unforeseeable complications - which would need to be addressed at the next selectmen's meeting Aug. 14 - the town will not charge the farm for its water usage, board members said.

The town also will not spend any time, money or resources to help build the well, which Stephan said would cost roughly $10,000.

Stephan said after the meeting he thought the compromise was fair, but disliked that the controversy put his farm on the receiving end of many residents' animosity, as he originally bought the property to save it from developers.

"I didn't create this issue, I inherited it," Stephan said, adding that Framingham saved millions of dollars by threading their water system through Eastleigh Farm instead of digging up roads and land to build the necessary infrastructure.

Stephan told the Globe previously that he already runs the farms at a loss. His farmstand usually sells a piece of produce for 25 cents at his farm stand when it costs him 75 cents to grow and harvest it, but the low pricing is necessary because of area residents' demand for cheap, locally-grown food.

Stephan said previously that he cannot believe the town refuses to find the water money in their budget, when towns like Sudbury and Ashland have kicked in millions of dollars to help farmlands and other open spaces in their communities.

"People say, 'Why should we save him?' but they're not saving me, they're saving 114 acres of land," Stephan said, who said he bought the farm initially to stop proposed development. "This is a very unique property, a unique farm. Who thought this would exist in Framingham?"

While farm supporters publicly opposed charging the farm for water in fear that it would shut down the 114 acres of space, other residents supporting the new charge flocked to Tuesday's meeting to express their concerns.

Town Meeting member Jeanne Bullock said she felt uncomfortable with Framingham taxpayers footing Eastleigh's water bill.

"I don’t think its fair to ask people to keep paying for it," Bullock said. "I would much prefer he start paying for it immediately while also working to put in a private well."

Town Meeting member Kathleen McCarthy said she wished to see a more level playing field for residents.

"We do realize the value of the farm, but at the same time, we can’t keep getting snookered," McCarthy said. "It's not up to us to save your farm. Is it up to you to save my house?"

Dennis Paulsen, chair of Town Meeting's standing committee on Public Works, also opposed making local residents pay for the farm's water.

"How do you explain to residents in Framingham, especially those on a fixed income, how this is a fair agreement?" Paulsen said. "It just doesn’t make any sense."

At the meeting, Stephan also announced that Greg Watson, commissioner of the state's Department of Agricultural Resources, will visit Eastleigh farm Wednesday morning, and invited the public to join.

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