As Framingham officials seek to begin charging local Eastleigh Farm for water for the first time in the farm's decades-old existence, proponents of the farm said the new bill would threaten to put the farm out of business.
Framingham Town Manager Robert Halpin will make recommendations Tuesday night at the Board of Selectmen's meeting on how to solve the issue, which has been brought to light in recent weeks.
Halpin said the town discovered Eastleigh had no water meter set up when officials began installing a new water cross-contamination device for the town to comply with state safety codes.
He said 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," Halpin said, adding that the town has been footing the farm's approximate $10,000-per-year water bill, which is supplied by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
Halpin said that all other businesses, industrial plants, residences, and stores in Framingham are currently being billed by the town for their water usage, and that the town sought to begin billing the farm for water as of July 1 this year.
"We're not even going to bill retroactively," Halpin said. "We’re just saying as of July 1st, we need to be invoicing for this."
Halpin added that the town currently gives Eastleigh Farm a $39,000 per year tax break, and that the farm can seek out other funds available through grants and charitable programs.
"There are tools available to preserve the farm, but free water is not one of them," Halpin said, adding that the farm uses approximately 6,000 gallons of water per day.
However, farm owner Doug Stephan said if the town charges the farm upwards of $10,000 more per year, the new bill will threaten his already-struggling venture in a suburban neighborhood where land and operational costs are already expensive.
He opposes the town's refusal to honor the "gentleman's agreement" that was put in place decades ago, where he said 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.
"What I'm really resenting about this is I’ve been made out to be some kind of thief, but I’m not doing any such thing," he said. "I'm going by an agreement I never even thought of. The farm has existed for many years more than I have been alive, and the previous four owners did not pay a water bill."
Stephan said the new charge threatens his business, as it already proves nearly impossible to profitably run the farm using traditional methods.
Stephan said he 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.
He said 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?"
Stephan said he is growing weary of the argument, and that this is just one many issues that the town has harassed him over.
"I grew up here, I worked here as a kid, and I bought it to save it from being developed," Stephan said. "If rest of town doesn’t agree with that, maybe I should just develop it."
The Board of Selectmen will meet on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Ablondi Room of Town Hall, 50 Concord St.
Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org