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Scarborough pledges $2M for farmland acquisition

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Scarborough pledges $2M for farmland acquisition

SCARBOROUGH — The long-planned acquisition of Benjamin Farm by the Scarborough Land Trust received a vital boost Wednesday from the Town Council.

Councilors unanimously authorized spending $2 million for SLT's purchase of the historic, 136-acre farm, the largest remaining plot of undeveloped town land east of U.S. Route 1, in a densely populated Pleasant Hill Road neighborhood.  

"It's a done deal," Council Chairman Richard Sullivan said. 

The funds will come from the town's land acquisition reserve. 

Securing the sale of Benjamin Farm to the town for preservation has been SLT's greatest priority for nearly 15 years. Pending a completed sale, the trust plans to put public nature trails and possibly even public gardens or farming on the lot. 

The land trust announced in January it had reached a $2.5 million agreement with the Benjamin family to purchase the property, and has since been crafting a fundraising strategy. 

With $2 million coming from the town, SLT plans to privately raise the remaining $500,000. The trust has until the end of the year to complete the sale.

The land acquisition reserve fund currently has $2.4 million. The town has voted to approve land bonds for the fund in 2000, 2003 and 2009. 

Despite voters historically favoring land bonds, Councilor Jessica Holbrook said Wednesday that residents may now be hesitant to replenish the fund for preservation of other historic lands and structures. 

Otherwise, councilors enthusiastically supported the purchase as a rare conservation opportunity for one of the most talked about properties in town. 

Sullivan and Councilor Ed Blaise said they knew the farm's late owner, Jerred Benjamin, who died in 2006. Both agreed preservation of the property was in the Benjamin family's and the town's best interests, rather than having it become another Pleasant Hill housing development.

"(Benjamin) loved that land, and I think a lot of people that live in the Pleasant Hill area love that land," Blaise said. "I'm dying to get out there and explore it, like I'm sure a lot of people are. This is a no-brainer; this is something that we have to do."

Councilors slightly amended the final order to protect town interests in the sale and leave avenues open for additional town support to the property. 

Pending approval of the farm sale, the Scarborough Land Trust will have preserved more than 1,000 acres of town land.

Although only a handful of people addressed the council on the property sale, more than 50 supporters filled seats and applauded when the council gave final approval.

"This is a real turning point," Paul Austin, president of SLT, said. "But there's still a long way to go."

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.