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Questions raised over 440 acres of Cheshire land

CHESHIRE – More than 25 residents attended a Water Department informational meeting this week, with some weighing the pros and cons of, and at times arguing about, future options for a large swath of town land.

The property in question – 440 of 715 acres of mostly forested town land along Greylock Road – is a point of contention between the Water Department and some residents. For years, the department has thought the land suitable for wind turbine development, and it recently secured a grant to conduct a feasibility study to determine the reality of the prospect.

However, others in town say the state has a standing offer to buy the land for as much as $1 million, and town officials should be allowed to enter into negotiations with the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) for the potential sale.

Water Commissioner Francis Waterman largely carried the Monday meeting, making a case for potential wind development as a greater long-term benefit to the town. He said to sell the land before studying the possibility of development would be premature.

“The feasibility study is going to put the information in my hand so I can stand here and say: ‘This is a great project’ or ‘Let’s sell the land,’ ” Waterman said. “That’s all we’re asking for.”

The study would gather data about wind power at the site, balanced against the cost of connecting it to the grid. The Water Department received a $35,000 grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to conduct the study, which could be completed within a year – if certain hurdles with the state and DCR are overcome. The land is protected under Article 97 of the state constitution, a conservation measure, which would need to be overridden by a two-thirds vote from Town Meeting and the Legislature in order for the study to take place.

Two representatives from Tighe & Bond consulting engineers, Project Manager Briony Angus and Senior Vice President Francis J. Hoet, accompanied Waterman. Both Angus and Hoet have worked on similar projects, and verified that the site was promising.

However, they would give no guarantee as to the viability of the site until actual data was gathered and analysis done.

In the meantime, Waterman argued, the department has generated an average of $11,147 per year in timber sales from the property since 2001, used to offset the cost of water for town users. Waterman also presented “conservative figures” estimating $165,050 in annual revenue and electricity savings after the turbines were producing, giving three to five years as an estimate for when that figure would be reached.

Zoning Board member Thomas Zappula argued in favor of discussing a sale of the property with DCR. He said the state would preserve the land, while keeping it open to residents. This, and the town would benefit from the estimated $1 million sale, with additional indefinite state payments in lieu of taxes of roughly $7,000 to $10,000 per year.

Zappula also brought along a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study of viable spots for wind development in the county that excludes the property in question.

“I think [the Water Department] should be working with the Selectmen on this instead of fighting with them,” Zappula said. “And that’s what I see – a fight going on.”

Others in attendance expressed skepticism about the given timeline, citing noteworthy difficulties in similar area and state projects, and resident Brian Bedard pointed out that the projected finances could be subject to major change.

The future of the property ultimately falls in the hands of residents, as negotiating the sale will appear as a ballot item in this year’s election.