Land Trust Responsibilities Shift

by | Dec 1, 2019

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

For at least the past couple of decades, the East Greenwich Land Trust, a board of volunteers appointed by the Town Council, has operated with relative autonomy, particularly with regard to the Land Trust’s most significant parcel, the 89-acre Boesch Farm at 830 South Road, acquired in 2001.

A new understanding of the land trust’s origin, however, has changed how the board operates, relieving it of oversight of the farm’s maintenance and placing it firmly in the “advisory board” category. The discovery took place over the summer, when Town Solicitor Andy Teitz was investigating how land transfers had happened in the past in preparation for new land acquisitions.

“Unfortunately, it has come to our attention over the past few months that the land trust was not set up properly when it was set up more than 30 years ago,” said Land Trust Chair Tracie Huffman Truesdell. 

“They thought they had been given the authority by the state to own property and they weren’t. That’s really the only difference,” said Town Planner Lisa Bourbonnais. “They do still rightly exist. There’s a section of the code dedicated to their stewardship of land but they can’t own it.”

It’s perhaps not surprising land trust members over the years have thought they had some level of ownership. The deed signed by Boesch Farm’s former owner John Boesch, for instance, states, “John Boesch hereby grants to the East Greenwich Municipal Land Trust … “ (Boesch Farm Deed).

But, when the land trust arranged for the land transfer, town voters had to approve a bond to cover the purchase price. It seems clear from that action that the land belongs to the town. 

Still, the land trust has played a pivotal role over the years in managing the Boesch property, which includes both an easement for open space and a stipulation to keep part of the property an active farm (raising plants, animals or both). Pat McNiff, owner of Pat’s Pastured, has held the lease on the farm since 2011. Since then, the land trust has been involved in everything from rehabbing the historic farmhouse where Pat lives to helping him get a second well and a processing facility built.

That is now changed. 

Going forward, the town will oversee the farm, starting with the discovery over the summer of the existence of lead paint in the farmhouse. When McNiff first moved into the farmhouse, he was single. Now he’s married with a toddler and an infant and lead plus toddler doesn’t mix. By state law, when a landlord is aware of the existence of lead, the residence cannot be occupied by children 6 years and younger. In this case the town is the landlord and the town had to act.

“We had to immediately step in,” said Town Manager Andrew Nota. After a bit of a scramble, a rental house right near the farm was been found for the McNiff family to live in during the lead remediation, which will last a few months. Income for Boesch comes from McNiff’s lease but more significantly from proceeds of the rental of 2608 South County Trail, a property given to the town in 2005 for the benefit of Boesch Farm (2608 So. County Trail Deed). It has been leased to Happy Hearts Learning Center since ownership was transferred to the town. A loan taken out for fixes at the farm should cover the remediation (paid back through the Happy Heart rental income) but the town will step in if necessary to help with the cost.

The new reality has been a challenge for land trust members.  

“The land trust has been largely preoccupied with Boesch since it was acquired,” Truesdell said. “Boesch requires a lot of attention for many reasons, one being it is the largest property, has the most moving parts, and it’s the showcase property of all the land trust properties at this time. There are always other things the land trust could and would love to do – fundraising, events, trail walks and clean ups. These as well as Land Trust Days are all things we do, and would love to have the time and funds to do more of.”

Nota, who has only been town manager since September, feels strongly that the town must bear the responsibility of care for Boesch Farm. 

The land trust had “a feeling of independence and authority. But the land is owned by the town and the town is ultimately responsible,” Nota said. But, he added, the land trust still plays an important role.

“We don’t want to make every decision,” said Nota of the town. “We need boots on the ground. We need volunteers who have a vision, researching other properties, intimately involved in trying to assist us in the Land Trust’s charge.”

* Full disclosure: My husband Neal McNamara is a member of the land trust.

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