In 16 years, Belchertown has added 774 acres to its open space holdings; another 90 acres may be on the way

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
BELCHERTOWN - When LeeAnne Connolly took the job of administrator for the Conservation Commission 16 years ago Belchertown was in the midst of a three decade-long building boom and she had visions of her adopted community losing the rural character that she held dear.

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Enforcing the Wetlands Protection Act is the reason conservation commissions were created around the state, she said, and most of her time was taken up by evaluating permit applications for new construction. “Our office was just so busy trying to keep up with the paperwork and the rapid development,” she said. But another mandate of the seven-member commission she reports to is to preserve natural resources and open space.

Connolly has consistently approached that part of her job with gusto. If voters at the annual Town Meeting this spring approve a $198,000 appropriation — with $133,650 reimbursed by the state — to purchase 90 acres to add to the Jabish Brook Conservation Area it will be the ninth major land acquisition Connolly has shepherded through a complicated maze of legal and political hurdles.

“I always tell people in town that they are going to appreciate all the land I protected later when I’m gone,” said Connolly. “Though sometimes they just roll their eyes.”

Beginning in 1999 when she led the effort to purchase what is now called the Topping Farm #1 property on Orchard Street and Warren Wright Road through 2012 with the creation of the Mead Conservation area on Gold Street and Gulf Road, Connolly brought in nearly $2.2 million in preservation grants to 773.5 acres.

That money comes from the Local Acquisitions for Natural Diversity (LAND) program of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Once a transaction is completed the land must forever remain open to the public for passive recreation such as hiking, swimming in a natural water body, hunting, skiing and camping. Certain kinds of agriculture and timber management are allowed.

She also works closely with the Kestrel Land Trust, based in Amherst, and served on its board for 13 years. She stepped down last year. “They helped me with every project,” said Connolly. “I couldn’t do any of this without them.”

Career change

Connolly spent the first part of her career as a financial advisor and salesperson for the John Hancock Life Insurance Company until she got laid off when it closed its Springfield office. She then took a job as an office clerk for the Belchertown Conservation Commission and went back to school to get a masters degree in wetland management and ecology. She has lived in the town since 1979.

“In my 40s I realized that I always wanted to do something to protect the environment so I took the opportunity to do what I always thought I should do,” said Connolly.

When the administrator post opened up it was a 32-hour a week position. “I fought to get the job for 40 hours,” she said. “One of the things I was saying is that with the extra hours we could do some land protection.”

At the time, Belchertown had already been growing rapidly for almost two decades and would continue at that pace until the economy slumped in recent years.

According to Town Planner Douglas Albertson, Belchertown is still adjusting to the building boom that radically changed the community. “From 1976 to 2008 we averaged 95 to 100 new houses a year,” he said. “That’s a long stretch, 30 years of new houses.”

Before that, Belchertown was mainly farmland. “In the 1970s two things happened, UMass expanded like crazy so we got apartment buildings and the housing boom started,” Albertson said.

The second thing was that school busing and urban renewal in Springfield, he said. Many Springfield residents, who could afford to, moved beyond the city limits, Albertson said. “That caused a lot of people to get priced out of the immediate suburbs and we’re the next ring beyond Wilbraham and Ludlow. Land was cheap here.”

Eye on the future

Connolly, who bought a house with three acres of land in 1979, said she chose the spot for its rural character. “I wanted to live off the land and all that stuff and be a hippie,” she said. “I wanted to grow organic food and have some chickens and horses and dogs and cats and live happily ever after.”

Experiencing what had happened in her hometown of Lexington provided a lesson for her. “I grew up in suburbia,” she said. “It was a shame to see all of those beautiful fields and marshes and swamps turned into ‘McMansions’ and golf courses.”

Belchertown, said Connolly, could easily go that route. “I just feel they’re not making any more land, and as much as we can acquire in the next 10 or 15 years for our water quality, rural character, air quality. ... I’m looking 20, 30, 50 years down the road,” she said.

Connolly is alarmed by a general disintegration of the environment. “What’s our climate, what’s our world going to look like?” she asks.

When she was at the University of Massachusetts as an undergraduate in the early 1970s greenhouse gasses were the subject of concern. People were “saying if we do something now we’ll be able to correct and slow down the greenhouse effect and the carbon dioxide,” she said. “But they procrastinated and didn’t do anything.”

Her outlook is somewhat dire. “I wish the younger people would realize that they need to get more involved and realize that we may not have a lot of time left. Our planet, our earth is not infinite and that bothers me.”

Connolly insists that she is not antidevelopment. “It’s more like directing development,” she said. “There shouldn’t be a house on every lot. There are certain areas we should set aside that are special.”

Gratified by support

Every land acquisition project has to be approved by Town Meeting and Connolly has been gratified by the support the voters of Belchertown have given her efforts. The parcels must also meet strict guidelines in terms of how they fit in with wider conservation goals.

The first Topping Farm purchase, which was completed in 2000, cost $310,000, two thirds of it coming from the state. In 2002 the town bought 93 acres on Gold Street known as the Reed Property. In 2004 and 2007 the town bought two more pieces of the Topping Farm for a combined price of $840,000. In between making those two purchases the town got 65 acres on Gulf Road for $540,000 to create the Scarborough Brook Conservation Area in 2006. In 2011 it paid $750,000 for 290 acres along Route 9 known as the Holland Glen Forest.

The Select Board recently voted to accept the state grant for the new Jabish Brook property. All that remains for the deal to go through is Town Meeting approval.

According to the project description, the land meets criteria for many of the conservation goals established by the state, including being “a very active wildlife corridor.” It is adjacent to a walking trail on the existing conservation area and contains “a critical watershed.”

Connolly said the Conservation Commission is usually on the lookout for new areas that might be suitable for protection. “There’s always land available, but we’ve kind of got our hands full right now doing projects,” she said.

Sometimes it’s no

In her role of enforcing the Wetlands Protection Act she sometimes has to put a damper on projects. “I don’t find that part of my job gratifying, when I have to tell somebody ‘no’ they can’t put their house where they want it,” she said. “You don’t win friends, that’s for sure.” But, she said, making sure that new construction is at least 100 feet from wetlands and 200 feet from existing brooks and streams is her primary responsibility. “It’s the reason we exist.”

The part of her job that include land acquisition, protection and management is what she likes best. “It’s my major interest,” Connolly said. She sometimes runs into opposition from people who believe that putting land into conservation takes it off the tax rolls and therefore denies the town potential revenue. “I don’t hear it a lot, but you know, we all hear what we want to hear anyway.”

It is important to her to show people that there are alternatives to letting every buildable tract become a subdivision.

Asked what she thinks her reputation in town is, Connolly said, “that I’m a good grant writer.” Responding to a suggestion that the word “tenacious” might describe her approach, she said, “Yeah, I’ll go with tenacious. I fought very hard for all these projects.”