$1M grant helps protect 800 acres in Leyden

LEYDEN — A new million-dollar state grant to protect more than 800 acres of farmland and woodland in Leyden is being hailed by land conservationists for protecting a large swath of open space in a small town on the edge of Greenfield.

Using the state’s new Landscape Partnership Program, designed to step up the effort to “conserve Massachusetts’ best remaining large tracts of undeveloped land,” Franklin and Mount Grace Land trusts will work together to protect most of the 280-acre Bree-z-Knoll Farm, together with contiguous properties owned by 10 other property owners.

The town will also participate in the program, which emphasizes collaboration, by jointly holding permanent restriction on the 802 acres, together with the two land trusts.

“Doing that all at once is really exciting,” said Leigh Youngblood, executive director of the Athol-based Mount Grace trust, which applied last year for the program funded by the state’s open space bond fund. Working with Shelburne Falls-based Franklin Land Trust, which has a history of working in Leyden, she said the groups held meetings with landowners to explain the program’s benefits.

Projects approved for the program must consist of at least 500 acres, which necessitated bringing together several abutters, and must bring together nonprofit agencies with a town or state agency. The Leyden project — for which the state pays $1,079,300 — involves both land trusts, the town and state agricultural, environmental conservation and wildlife agencies.

The state’s $1,079,300 pays for 50 percent of the appraised development value. Under this program,landowners agree to accept only half of the appraised value but also get a state tax credit of up to $50,000 for that gift, as well as a federal income tax incentive. All of the land can still be farmed, logged or used for recreation, while the land — much of it already under reduced assessment programs— remains on the local tax rolls.

“There’s long been lot of talk about the need to increase the pace of conservation to protect land for clean water, for biodiversity and for habitat … and to protect it sooner rather than later so it won’t be so fragmented,” Youngblood said. “Without this incentive, we might not have invited this many landowners to come talk , because the project is so complex. But it’s worth it because it protects so much more.”

Among benefits of the program are protection of two Greenfield water supplies, at Leyden Glen and along the Green River, and restricting development of Bree-Z-Knoll, a dairy farm that had applied unsuccessfully for state Agricultural Protection Program funding before but been rejected because it didn’t meet the requirements for that program.

The scenic open pastures of the farm, which produces 370,000 gallons of milk a year for the Our Family Farms dairy cooperative, offer vistas that not only preserve the town’s rural character, says Youngblood, but help draw new businesses with similar values and goals. For example, the Spirit Fire Meditative Retreat Center and Angel’s Rest Retreat are both participating in the project; these retreat centers have helped bring new jobs to the community and repeat visitors to the area.

The state partnership program — which the Franklin trust is also using to protect 600 acres of farm and forest land in Charlemont with a $1.14 million grant and 1,000 acres in Hawley north of the state forest — allows farmers to protect their adjoining woodlots, which in some cases may be most of the farm, said trust Executive Director Richard Hubbard.

“It’s also allowing us to conserve a lot of land that’s locally important but may not rise up to be of state significance,” said Hubbard, “It has a huge impact on the landscape, because we can do land conservation on a landscape sale.”

In the case of Leyden — a town that borders Greenfield yet has retained much of its rural character — that’s all the more significant, says Hubbard.

“Leyden’s unique in its own way,” he said. “It has some of the most spectacular views, without question, in Franklin County.”

Jerry Lund, a former town Planning Board member who’s the town’s representative to the Franklin Regional Planning Board, agrees.

“Leyden is a little bit of an anomaly,” he said. “It’s next door to Greenfield, but a lot of people don’t even know where Leyden Road goes. It’s a little different from most of the other hilltowns around, because we have a lot of hilltop meadowland.”

And with another 800 acres of open space protected seven years ago through the Franklin Land Trust’s protection of the Heron farm, that accounts for a significant portion of the town’s 18 square miles.

Selectman William Glabach, whose family owned Bree-Z-Knoll Farm in the 1930s, said, “In the 50s and 60s, you could raise a family and live a good life on a few dozen cows. “Now, you have to keep expanding just to keep your head above water. The Selectboard has talked about protecting land in town for some time. We really want to maintain our agricultural character and keep some open space for farms and for hunting.”

The land trusts, which don’t receive any of the grant funding, help bring landowners together with tax advisers, appraisers and land conservationists and, according to Hubbard, also help borrow the money for the development rights purchase, which is then refunded by the state.

According to Youngblood, town boards also contributed to the success of the project by agreeing to evaluate the state’s new natural resource zoning statute and consider seeing it adopted by town meeting as part of its own zoning code.