Amherst group fights to preserve Hawthorne farmhouse

By Sam Hayes

In an effort to save the rolling hills, 100-year-old trees and the old Hawthorne family farmhouse at 235 E. Pleasant St. the Amherst group Friends of Hawthorne Farm have circulated a petition, which they will present at the March 21 town meeting, to preserve the nearly 7-acre parcel recently purchased by the town.

Hawthorne Farm, closed in 2007, was purchased for $500,000 by the Town of Amherst after a unanimous vote at a town meeting in spring of 2010. It was purchased with funds from the Community Preservation Act which provides funding for recreation, open space and affordable housing.

Currently the plot of land is scheduled to have a mixture of affordable housing near E. Pleasant St., green space, open wetlands and recreational fields near the abutting Amherst’s Wildwood Elementary School.

As a reaction to the purchase of the land, Friends of Hawthorne Farm was created in late 2010 because they said “it became clear that town government was ignoring requests that came from us as concerned individuals.”

Friends of Hawthorne Farm member Robin Karson said, “We realized that this old farmland was invisible to town government, and that a friends group … might be a way to galvanize people who had a different model in mind than development of a soccer field.”

In her pamphlet, “A Plan For Hawthorn Farm,” Karson explained that the group thought “that the old farm land could more sustainably and creatively be used for community and teaching gardens, preserved open space and wildlife habitat.” Karson also authored an article under the same title, and was published on Dec. 3, 2010 in the Amherst Bulletin.

In an e-mail interview Karson calls the current plan “frankly stupid” saying that “this could be a wonderful vital center for community gardens, walking trials [and] nature study.”
However, The Friends of Hawthorne Farm are not petitioning strictly to get there way, they are petitioning for a new process.

“Ideally, [town manager] John Musante, and the select board would respond [to our petition] by realizing that the current process is seriously flawed and appoint a new committee which represented different constituencies to suggest next steps,” said Karson. Currently, the project is headed by the Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education group and the Housing Partnership, a group that works on affordable housing in Amherst.

Town Manager Musante sees the project differently.

“The town didn’t buy the property to do nothing,” said Musante in a phone interview.
He explained that they are “working to fulfill what the town meeting supported,” to follow through with their three goals of green space, housing and recreation fields because that is why $500,000 was unanimously appropriated to the project.

Against the claim that they need new committees for fairness Musante said that the town is “engaged in a public process,” and all residents are able to contribute.

He reiterated that nothing has been decided yet and “even if we had a plan we still need the money.” No money other than the half million to buy the land has been authorized.

Musante also said there is an “on-going study” to find the feasibility of converting the farm’s house into the affordable housing or whether they will build a new structure.
The opposing groups will meet at the March 21 town meeting when the petition is presented.

Karson said that at the town meeting she hopes for an “engaged response” by the public. She says that the Friends of Hawthorne Farm have not come up with a backup plan if the petition fails.

Andrea Leibson, an employee of Amherst Ballet, abutting the Hawthorne Farm parcel at 29 Strong St, said she “wants to see what makes sense for the town.”

“I can understand the balance between need for green space and space for kids to play,” said Leibson, “but kids need a space to play.”

If interested in signing the petition email list, Carol Betsch, Friend of Hawthorne Farm and wife of Robin Karson, at [email protected]

Sam Hayes can be reached at [email protected]