Boston Globe: Waltham nonprofits seek protection for UMass-owned farmland

Nonprofit organizations operating on the grounds of a Waltham farm owned by the University of Massachusetts Amherst face eviction by year’s end because of the age and declining condition of the building housing the groups, a school spokesman said.  But the nonprofits worry that their eviction could mean the future of the farm may be at risk, said Dee Kricker, who is the coordinator for the Waltham Field Station Tenant Working Group.

The organizations — which include the Waltham Land Trust, Boston Area Gleaners, and Massachusetts 4-H — want their leases extended through the end of 2020 and a promise that the land will be preserved as agricultural and open space, she said.  “We are holding our breath,” she said. “We are getting anxious, our supporters are getting concerned.”

The 58-acre property has been used for agricultural and open space for decades, first by UMass researchers, and later by the nonprofits that lease space in an existing administrative building. Current activities include community farming and gardening, along with other agricultural programs, Kricker said.  The station is divided into two large parcels along Beaver Street, and is located near Bentley University and the city-owned campus of the former Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center.

University officials are assessing the future of the property, said Ed Blaguszewski, a UMass Amherst spokesman.

“We want to come up with a path forward as soon as we can, but we don’t have a date in mind right now” for a decision, Blaguszewski said.

Meanwhile, calls are mounting for UMass Amherst officials to take steps to protect the property. More than 6,500 people have signed a change.org petition calling on UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy to “conduct a speedy, transparent, public process” with elected officials to ensure that ownership of the property is transferred to Waltham as farm land and open space without cost to taxpayers.

George Darcy, a Ward 3 city councilor, said he has invited Mayor Jeannette McCarthy and officials with the city’s law office to meet with city councilors next month to discuss options for preserving the property.

“I’m an open space advocate, the farm is used by many diverse groups, and the people of Waltham have made it clear they want the last remaining open spaces [in the city] to remain open,” Darcy said. “I’m following not just my wishes, but their wishes as well.”

In an e-mail, McCarthy said she has requested funding from the Waltham City Council to conduct an appraisal and environmental testing of the property.

State Senator Michael Barrett of Lexington, whose district includes Waltham, said he supports giving the tenants more time while the university determines its plans for the land.  Existing restrictions on the property should preclude it from “catastrophic outcomes” that would change its use from farming and open space. But evicting the tenants by the end of the year would disrupt the work being done at the field station, he said.  “I think we can find a way to protect the university’s interests, keep the Waltham site going, and keep these organizations on task,” Barrett said.

For years, UMass Amherst looked for ways to revitalize the property. It got close to that goal in 2014, when state lawmakers approved $20 million for improvements in an environmental bond bill. But funding was not included in the state’s capital plan by the administration of Governor Charlie Baker, who took office in 2015.

At the field station, several structures have deteriorated over the years, including the building that houses the current tenants. They were told in June 2018 that they would not be able to stay past December 2019, Blaguszewski said.  Tenants were given the option of moving to the former Mount Ida College campus in Newton, he said. The Newton college was acquired by UMass Amherst after it closed last year.  After the tenants leave the Waltham building, those who use the property for agricultural purposes may continue to do so, he said.

In a statement, the Waltham Field Station Tenant Working Group, which represents the nonprofits, said it has yet to receive “written assurances” regarding access and preservation of the property.

Blaguszewski said university officials want to come to a solution.  “We thought we had a good plan in place, and that one didn’t happen to work,” Blaguszewski said, referring to the 2014 bond bill. “We’ve got to move ahead and think through [how] to proceed.”

Kricker, with the Waltham Field Station Tenant Working Group, has been a longtime member of several organizations that have used the station property.

The working group’s members also include Waltham Fields Community Farm, Green Rows of Waltham Community Gardens, Grow Native Massachusetts, Mass Farmers Markets, and the Boston-Area Climate Experiment.

The farm served an important role in the growth of the region during the 20th century, and is serving as a focal point in renewed interest in local agriculture. It should be protected, she said.

“Where do you find farmland in Waltham anymore?” Kricker said. “It’s irreplaceable.”

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.