Community farm ready for start-up

The Westport Board of Finance (BOF) unanimously voted Wednesday to make a positive recommendation to the Board of Selectmen regarding a lease agreement between the town and Westport GVI Town Farm Inc. to create an organic community farm on town-owned land at 134 Cross Highway.

The selectmen already approved the lease at a meeting on Oct. 27, subject to receiving the BOF recommendation, as required by the town charter. Earlier that month the Planning and Zoning Commission had issued a positive report on the lease, as required by state statute for the use of municipal property.

The action by the finance board was the last favorable response from the town that was needed for the farm project on the 2.2-acre property. The site was acquired by the town as part of a purchase of 18 acres of farm land from the Wakeman family in 1970 for $350,000.

The property became available last spring at the termination of a life-use of the 121-year-old farm house on the site, after the death of a member of the Wakeman family who was occupying the farm house.

The initial term of the lease is for seven years at the nominal rent of $1 a year in return for the lessee bearing the cost of making the farm house habitable for the farmer hired to develop the farm.

That improvement to the property is expected to cost up to $100,000 and would be limited to creating a second-floor apartment for the farmer, who would occupy the farm house as a sub-lessee, and bringing the rest of the farm house up to current building-code requirements. First floor use of the house has not yet been determined.

An amendment to the lease, which has been added since the approval by the selectmen, requires that the not-for-profit lessee, at the start of the lease, receive $75,000 in funding toward the work on the farm house from the Green Village Initiative (GVI), the sponsor of the project.

Speaking for GVI at the finance board meeting, Daniel Levinson said that, in addition to a monthly salary of $2,000, the farmer would not pay rent as part of the compensation package.

The farm house has been certified as historic by the Westport Historic Commission and designated as such by the state, and Levinson made it clear at the BOF meeting that GVI was not committing at this time to rehabilitate the property in the manner of the work done on the town-owned McLaury House, a comparable-size historic property at 99 Myrtle Avenue, where restoration work was completed in 2007 under a quarter-of-a million budget.

"We are not replacing the roof, or the siding, or putting in new windows. It's all inside work, mostly on the second floor. We're not putting in a new kitchen or bath," said Levinson.

As the project moves along and grows, possibly with additional acres from the former Wakeman site, Levinson said that GVI would hope to do more work on the farm house and expand its use for educational purposes with P&Z approval.

"We would like to spend $250,000 on the farm house in a year or two, including installing solar and geothermal heating," said Levinson.

Westport architect Peter Wormser, who has volunteered his services for the farm project, said that the $100,000 figure would be a reasonable limit for the spending now planned for the farm house.

He said that became clear once it was determined that soil contamination was not an overwhelming problem and that the farm house did not have serious structural deficiencies.

"We even found that the septic system has been operational to this year, and would only need annual pumping out," said Wormser.

Either the town or Westport GVI Town Farm, Inc. would be able to terminate the lease--the town with 12 months notice, the tenant with 90 days notice--and the town would have to compensate the lessee, up to a maximum of $100,000, for work done on the house, if the town were to take back the property without cause.

In the event of default by the lessee, which Levinson agreed would include not being able to make the project work, the town would not be liable for the compensating the tenant for rehabilitation costs.

Westport Public Works Department Director Stephen Edwards, Representative Town Meeting member Eileen Flug, District 9, and Rebecca Howe, who helped found the town's farmers market in 2006, spoke at the BOF meeting in support of the farm project. They will serve on the not-for-profit lessee's board of directors.