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Busa Land Uses to Include Affordable Housing and Open Space

Down one member due to a medical condition that sidelined its chair, the Lexington Board of Selectmen on Monday voted to designate a portion of the town-owned Busa Farms property for affordable housing and the rest for open space uses.

After more than 20 meetings discussing the subject, the Board of Selectmen has made a decision about future uses for the Busa Land -- sort of.

Down a member due to a medical issue that sidelined its chairman, the Board of Selectmen voted Monday to designate a portion of the town-owned property for affordable housing and the rest for open space uses.

While a stretch along Lowell Street is now locked in for affordable housing, the March 5 vote doesn't close the door on a community farm, playing fields or both on the remainder of the approximately eight-acre parcel.

That'll be a conversation for another day, according to the selectmen. And the decision—or indecision, depending on who you ask—didn't sit well with everyone.

Farm vs. Field

After the meeting, Janet Kern, president of LexFarm, a group that brought forward a , would only say that she was "speechless.”

Other farm supporters felt the "open space" designation signifies a disregard for the Busa Land Use Proposal Committee's recommendation, which supported use as a community farm, as well as some affordable housing “in a modest, integrated way, if it is compatible with the farm operation.” Two of the committee members also supported an athletic field under appropriate conditions. (To read the full BLUPC report, click here)

The public comment Monday night was relatively even in terms of speakers supporting a community farm versus recreational uses.

Recreation supporters said they believe a community farm and playing fields could coexist on the property and noted there were 6,000 participants in youth and school sports in 2009, with more than 51,000 hours of field use plus another 2,000 hours of fields request denied due to unavailability.

Betsy Weiss, who said she voted for the $4 million Busa Farms purchase as both a Community Preservation Committee and Town Meeting member, argued that the best use for the property is a plan of shared uses that includes an athletic field, community farm and affordable housing.

While some recreation supporters cast LexFarm as a high-powered PR machine that pushed an agenda, the community farm folks said the organization is an inspired group of citizens who carried the possibility of a community farm to this point and are a big part of the reason it could succeed – assuming it gets a good chunk of the acreage.

Kristen Reed, a Westminster Avenue resident and LexFarm board member, said educational opportunities are part of the reason the community farm needs so much space. Those ideas include weekly story/explore the farm programs for young children, internships and community service opportunities for older students and adult workshops on landscape design and organic farming, she said.

One resident, Ellen McDonald, suggested the selectmen leave the farm as-is for another year while the town takes a step back to consider its values, given that affordable housing, farming and recreation are shared community values pitted against one another in proposals for this property. As well, none of the current proposals are an affordable way to build affordable housing, she said.

“We have less open space, fewer resources. It’s really unhealthy for us to go through this as a community over and over again,” said McDonald. “If you make this decision tonight it’s not going to end. People are going to pitch tents.”

Selectmen’s Discussion

In two separate motions, Selectman Norman Cohen, presiding over the meeting in the absence of Chairman Hank Manz, moved to designate as affordable housing a stretch the Busa Land along Lowell Street extending toward Arlington line, and for the remainder of the property to be designated as open space. The selectmen present voted 3 to 1 in favor of both motions.

Those designations are required under statutes of the Community Preservation Act, which was used to fund the land purchase, Cohen explained.

Selectman Peter Kelley was the nay vote, because he felt that since they’ve “kicked the can along for so long” the selectmen might as well push back the vote for another two weeks, when Manz would presumably return to the board.

Selectman George Burnell was the only board member to outwardly say that he would support using a portion of the property as playing fields. Kelley and Selectwoman Deb Mauger spoke in favor of the open space designation, which leaves the door open for recreational, agricultural and conservation uses. They also supported the idea an engineering study to look into maximizing recreation uses on Busa land and elsewhere in town.

“The flexibility we have by dedicating a portion of the property as open space would be a benefit to Lexington in perpetuity,” said Mauger, who advocated for the first use to include a request for proposals for a community farm.  

But that decision, along with a determination about exactly how much of the Lowell Street frontage will be used for affordable housing, will have to wait for another day. Those questions are likely to be taken up when the board is once again at full capacity, potentially on March 19, a week before annual Town Meeting.

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