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Select Board approves land lease to Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary

Date: 6/25/2014

LONGMEADOW – The Select Board approved the lease of town land in the Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary at its June 16 meeting.

The lease is for one year and the town could opt out with 30 days notice for any reason and no money will be exchanged. The board voted 3-2 in favor of the motion.

Town Manager Stephen Crane explained the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached an agreement with the Friends of Fannie Stebbins to convert the current refuge to the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, a nationwide designation.

“The town also owns land that is a part of the refuge and as a part of the transition, to the federal designation, there is a need to establish boundary markers and continue to the title work for title transfer,” he said, explaining that in the founding of the town, certain farming parcels along the river were not adequately mapped or marked.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service deal with a lot of land and they said this is [in] the top 1 percent of complexity in terms of title work,” he said. “Entering into this agreement will allow them to clean up a lot of title work in anticipation of eventually the transfer of town owned land to the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Crane said benefits of the federal designation included the fact that the land would be protected and patrolled by Fish and Wildlife Police in accordance with federal guidelines in addition to the Longmeadow Police Department.

“It’s an added level of protection for the refuge,” he said.

There is also the possibility that the town could take advantage of Federal Highway Administration funding to improve the refuge’s access roadways.

“Right now there is not a great access road in there, so to some extent, especially for people who are not as mobile, it is tough to get in there and really enjoy the benefits,” Crane said. “Looking long-term, this would allow us to better our access to the refuge.”

Selectman Mark Gold supported the lease agreement, concurring with Crane that there was little risk to the town, but questioned what would happen to the Fannie Stebbins Sanctuary as a nonprofit organization once the Fish and Wildlife Service took over. Crane said he was not sure.

“I don’t know if the organization will continue for fundraising purposes,” Crane said. “That relationship between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the 501(c)(3), they’re already further down the path than we are.”

Gold said he would like to hear more on their intentions.

“I think there are some advantages to having them hang around,” he said.

Selectman Alex Grant asked which parcel specifically was in question, citing Crane’s memo that stated that the site measured 55 acres and the total amount of town-owned land in the area far exceeded that number. Grant pointed out that the lease provided in the meeting materials cited an exhibit that would outline outline the area, but the map provided did not shed any light on the question.

“The concept seems fine to me, but I don’t think anyone on this board knows exactly what we’re voting on,” he said.

Crane admitted there was “scant” information and he normally wouldn’t have brought the issue before the board without that information, but there were time restrictions placed upon the town by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Friends of Fanny Stebbins.

Gold also pointed out that the purpose of the lease was to give the Fish and Wildlife Service the right to survey on the land and there was no reason not to approve it.

Selectman Paul Santaniello disagreed, stating “there’s always a risk” to any proposition, especially with work related to the federal government.

“There’s no such thing as a no-risk situation when you’re dealing with government entities and getting in bed with the federal government,” he said, voicing concerns about additional restrictions on the land and questions regarding who would act at the governing body that oversees the operation to make certain it does not become overly burdensome for the town.

He said unless the Friends of Fannie Stebbins come before the board and say the organization can no longer maintain the property, he would not support the lease.

Crane said he understood Santaniello’s concerns, especially after recent discussions regarding unfunded mandates. He said the town should keep a watchful eye on the situation, but at this time, there was nothing in the lease that opens the town up to those issues.

Santaniello also agreed with Grant that he felt the board needed more information before voting.

“This is the kind of vote that could get the Select Board in trouble,” he said.

Selectman Marie Angelides said she supported the idea and pointed out the Friends of Fannie Stebbins and the Fish and Wildlife Service had been discussing the possibility of a lease for well over a year and if the local organization supports the move, the board should as well.

She called the area “a national treasure” and said she appreciated the fact that the federal government wished to aid in its maintenance.