OPINION (DRACUT): An Improper Proposal

By: Philippe Thibault – 5/24

The populace in Dracut is fiercely proud of its agrarian ancestry. The wilderness north of the river, known to the native peoples as Augumtoocooke, was incorporated into the Town of Dracut in 1701.

The earliest “European “settlers with names of Varnum, Richardson, Fox, and others took to the soil to make their homes and livelihoods.

The western section of Dracut later developed into Collinsville and industrialized with the Collinsville Mill. Further downstream along Beaver Brook, the Navy Yard Mills were built along those same banks. Further East still was prime agricultural lands and Dracut’s culture was set as a farming community. Even today the townspeople see themselves as “of the land” and declaring the municipality a “Right to Farm” community.

Dracut was the first community to accept the Community Preservation Act (CPA) in Massachusetts when proposed. So enthusiastic was the community to adopt the law it passed Town Meeting prior to the statutory waiting period and required Special Town Meeting to ratify the previous action. Preservation of open space was the impetus for the acceptance and the reason for the unwavering support the law still has today.

Saja Farms and Farmer Dave’s are two success stories for the partnership between landowners, the State of Massachusetts through the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program, and the Town of Dracut’s CPA committee and townspeople.

This resulted in preserving approximately sixty acres of farmland. Beaver Brook Farm is another farm that was purchased fully by Dracut. The two previous acquisitions were for development rights to the parcels with the landowner retaining the property ownership for agriculture. Beaver Brook Farm reflected the significance of the land as a gateway to Dracut from Lowell on Mammoth Road. It is an iconic scenic view, announcing your arrival in bucolic Dracut as you gaze on the “Long View.”

The Proper Farm located in East Dracut on the southern side of Route 113, Broadway Road, is one in a series of farms creating an emerald necklace as you enter Dracut from Methuen. This gateway is no less iconic than that of Beaver Brook Farm on the western side of Town. There has always been dialogue with the owners of these farms to retain the pastoral views and farming heritage Dracut is rightfully proud of. At a recent Board of Selectmen Meeting, Mr. Brox came forward to inform the Board that he had come to the decision through consultation with Mr. Shaw to place his farm, the Proper Farm, into the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program with the State.

This would normally be a cause for great celebration with congratulatory and appreciative accolades given to Mr. Brox.
To the dismay of most, Mr. DiRocco stated this property would be a good location for a school. Odd commentary on a subject that was irrelevant to the conversation and unsolicited. Dracut has been under a rash of proposed 40B (affordable) housing projects and in particular Murphy’s Farm located along the Methuen Line on Wheeler Street. But for a selectman to suggest a location for an elementary school without consulting or conversations with the School Committee or School Superintendent is reckless.

There is a need for a new or renovated school in east Dracut. The Campbell School, built in the early 1970s is predominantly original. The Town through the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) is undertaking a feasibility study to determine the scope of the project. The study will take approximately I year to complete.

There are also other selectmen that consider themselves from a farming heritage, Chair Alison Genest and Jennifer Kopcinski. Both have campaigned on their ancestors’ credentials and agricultural prowess. Both claim to support the efforts to preserve open space.

The citizens would rightfully expect these “leaders” to advocate for protecting this gem. In fact, this very statement was said to me by a person highly active in the preservation community in Dracut. My response was,” they only needed a simple majority to go into executive session. If they didn’t want to buy the land, they could have voted no.”

They not only voted to further the discussions on the purchase of the Proper Farm but voted to discuss it in executive session. Even more curious is the presence of a warrant article for Town Meeting that would have the body vote to “buy the farm” without any back up information. Why do they need to hide behind closed doors?

Where is the money for the purchase coming from?

Why is there an article for Town Meeting to “acquire” the property?

For what will the land be used? The questions go on and on. There is a level of arrogance of a like not seen in Dracut by the ruling elite.

The Purchase of Beaver Brook Farm in Collinsville has been fraught with comparable questions and debate. Alison Genest campaigned on these very questions and against the purchase of Beaver Brook Farm all together as wasteful. You would think her slogan this time would be “Not Again.”

There are rumors of another municipal use as a Department of Public Works garage. An even worse use of prime farmland. What a gateway welcome into Dracut with twenty-four bays of twelve foot high by ten-foot-wide overhead doors and mountains of sand, salt, and gravel. Mind you, there is already a DPW garage at the Dillion Center on Hildreth Street, centrally located in Dracut.

Any new facilities needed could be built there. I think the more plausible reason for Joe Dirocco’s desire to purchase the Proper Farm is a final, farewell slap at Warren Shaw. Once a longtime friend of DiRocco, there has been a disagreement on the handling of town management and governance. So deep has the divide become that DiRocco chided Shaw about his editorials on 980 WCAP Saturday Morning Live radio show.

The topic of the Proper Farm has not garnered the discussion it deserves. The “secret squirrel” attitude of those selectmen mentioned may have some relationship to the silence. The Dracut Land Trust is waking and watching the unfolding events.
The Community Preservation and the Open Space Committees have started to express concern. The School Department has made it clear; this site is undesirable.

Will Dracut do the proper thing with the Proper Farm, or will they make an improper proposal? ◊