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Betting The Farm

Betting the farm

SCARBOROUGH – For Chris Comstock, 45, public investment in his property, he says, is the only way he can retain his family homestead and have any chance of making a career out of the hobby he loves, raising cattle.

At its last meeting, the Scarborough Town Council unanimously approved the first reading of a proposal to spend $270,000 from a Land Acquisition Reserve Fund to buy development rights to most of the 98-acre Comstock Farm, at 22 Berry Road, off Beech Ridge Road.

Under the deal, brokered by the Maine Farmland Trust, the town would get a permanent conservation easement to 90 acres of the property, protecting it from future subdivision or development while guaranteeing that it continue to operate as a farm. A “low-impact” public walking trail would be created through the farm, from a new six-space parking lot on Berry Road to the Grondin Aggregates property that surrounds the Nonesuch River, where additional trails are to be built as part of a previous contract zone agreement.

The Farmland Trust also would have an easement in front of the town’s, while the Scarborough Land Trust would own the easement to the trail. As part of its easement, the Farmland Trust would be required to visit the farm at least once per year and approve any changes, such as to fields and outbuildings.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s all we do,” said Nina Young, the director of the Farmland Trust, which controls 75 such easements in Maine.

According to Young, because the town would only be buying a deeded easement banning future development, Comstock, who would use the money to buy the property from his parents, Carlton and Ann Comstock, would continue to pay property taxes on the land and its 1830 farmhouse, assessed together at $410,400. Comstock would retain rights to build on about 4.5 acres surrounding the house, while a 2-acre lot abutting Berry Road would be carved off for possible future sale, if needed to support the farm.

A public hearing and final vote on the proposal is scheduled for the next council meeting, March 6.

For Comstock, the youngest of five children raised on the property – he was born two years after his parents moved there in 1965 – the deal is his only hope of keeping the land now that his father has retired and moved to Vermont.

“There’s no way I could afford to buy 100 acres in Scarborough,” he said on Monday, as he turned the fields and showed off his nine mixed-Hereford cattle, including Daphe and Velma, and attention-hogging Anne.

“I love it, it’s just fun to work the land,” he said. “I’ve done it all growing up. It’s just a peaceful way of life.”

“One of the problems is that Maine farmers are aging out and younger people can’t afford the land to even farm,” said Young. “The work of the Farmland Trust enables younger people to get into the agricultural industry.”

Although he’ll necessarily have to continue his day job at Fore River Dock and Dredge in South Portland – “Farming is an expensive business,” he said. “You can’t afford to just farm.” – Comstock’s plan is to slowly re-seed the fields, build the herd and eventually create a farmstand to sell beef and other products, like maple syrup, on site. As long as the operation runs more as a hobby than a going concern, he can only sell cattle at auction, or to individuals. State law prevents him from processing and selling the meat himself.

For the older Comstock, the deal not only keeps the property in the family, it keeps it in one piece, which could not have been guaranteed if it ever went as an estate to be divided among his five children.

“We really didn’t want to see it developed, neither my wife or I,” he said. “If it’s not protected, then sooner or later this would get sold for development. This way, even if it does get sold, the easements mean it has to remain in one piece.”

“When we moved in, there was none of this stuff around here,” he said, waving to subdivision homes on either side of the farm. “That’s what attracted us to the property – there was nothing around, it was a good place to raise kids. But it’s grown up all over the place.”

Carlton Comstock says that keeping the property in one piece is worth the deal offered under the Farmland Trust easement, even though he only gets about 80 percent of the property’s full-development value, pegged by Town Manager Tom Hall at “about $610,000.”

“I would be remiss not to point out that the appraisal that is the backbone of all of this is dated to 2008,” Hall told the council. “It may be in the town’s best interest to take these numbers at face value. For $270,000, less than half the purchase price, we conserve open space, enable the next generation of farmer and ensure public access. We get all of what we’re looking for and we don’t have to own it.

“The beauty of this is that we don’t need to own these properties to conserve them.”

Paul Austin, president of Scarborough Land Trust, supported deal, writing to councilors that the Comstock property protects the Nonesuch River watershed.

“Preserving productive farmland is a very high priority for SLT as, once developed, such land is lost from production forever,” he wrote.

Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, chairwoman of the town’s Parks and Recreation Board, also urged the council to support the easement purchase. She pointed to three separate bonds supported by Scarborough voters in recent years to fund land acquisition in town.

“That shows the commitment to purchasing open space in the town of Scarborough is tremendous,” Foley-Ferguson said.

For Young, of the Farmland Trust, the deal is also about preserving a piece of the town’s past.

“Scarborough is a great pace to live because you have so much open space,” she said. “There’s not a lot of farmland left in Scarborough but it used to be one of the biggest farm towns in the state of Maine. It supplied a lot of the markets in Boston and southern New Hampshire.”

Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 9:01 am |                       

Updated: 9:52 am, Wed Feb 27, 2013.          

By Duke Harrington |

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