Huge land purchase worries neighbors

Bob and Sharyl Devaney stand outside their vegetable stand on the Hudson Road in West Charleston. The couple also sell fresh eggs and Jack Russell Terriers. A sticker on the wall inside the stand says, “No farms, no food.” Photos by Paul Lefebvre

by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle, 9-26-2012

The acquisition of more than 2,000 acres of land by a Nebraska clothing tycoon in three Orleans County towns during the last five years is provoking questions and anxiety among neighboring property owners over what may be coming next.

Contiguous parcels of land in Brownington, Charleston and Westmore have been bought by the limited liability company Three Town Farms.  The company is headed by Daniel Hirschfield of Kearney, Nebraska, who is also the founder of a clothing company, The Buckle, Inc., which has retail stores throughout the country.

According to Vermont’s property transfer tax returns, Three Town Farms began to acquire property in 2008.  In August of that year it bought land straddling all three towns that was formerly used as a commercial hunting preserve.

This steel gate custom built for Three Town Farms denies access to a private road off Route 5A in Brownington that leads to the Mount Bliss property.

Recent purchases in 2012 include Hinton Hill in Westmore and Charleston, which together total 500 acres.  According to figures in the property transfer files, Three Town Farms has spent over $4-million acquiring roughly 2,400 acres of land.

The acquisition and the location of such a large block of property has ratcheted up fears among opponents of industrial wind projects.  They point to the property’s elevation and the push by Three Town Farms to purchase abutting property, and argue these are telltale indicators that another wind farm is likely coming to the Kingdom.

Katie Anderson of Westmore, who opposes industrial wind projects along Vermont ridgelines, said in a recent interview she has been trying to get the owner and/or his agents to host a “meet and greet” meeting to explain their intentions for the land.

She said she has received assurances from the owner that he has no plans to construct an industrial wind project on the property.  But she still has doubts.

“We’re getting kind of surrounded,” she said in an interview Sunday, referring to the recent purchase of Hinton Hill.

“It’s got better wind than either Sheffield or Lowell,” said a neighboring property owner who has studied a wind map of the state, but asked that his name be kept out of print.

Employees and those associated with Three Town Farms say fears of a potential wind project on the property are based on rumors and run contrary to Mr. Hirschfield’s preferences.

“He hates wind turbines,” said Pam Barber, whose husband, Bob, manages the property on behalf of Three Town Farms.

She said she has been harassed and abused in public by people who believe that Three Town Farms is buying property to host an industrial wind project.

At Ms. Barber’s suggestion, an e-mail was sent to the owner Monday and a phone message was left with his answering service in Kearney.  Neither one were returned by Mr. Hirschfield, who was said to be visiting his property in Stowe, Vermont, where Three Town Farms has its corporate headquarters.

But while rumors may be fanning fears of a wind farm, suspicions continue to persist due to the ongoing efforts by Three Town Farms to acquire more and more land — efforts that have left some property owners feeling they are being bullied.

Charleston Selectman Dean Bennett said that Three Town Farms has been “very aggressively” pursuing the 200 or so acres that make up the old town farm.  He said the group has been trying continuously to buy the property for three years.

The town has said thanks, but no thanks, because in “this day and age there are fewer and fewer places a fellow can go in the woods without fear of being kicked out,” said Mr. Bennett.

Over the last 18 months William Kranz of South Hadley, Massachusetts, has been receiving letters and phone calls with offers to buy his seasonal home in Westmore from Century 21 real estate agents, acting on behalf of Three Town Farms.

Mr. Kranz owns 100 acres at the end of Perkins Lane, and is an abutter to the Hinton Hill property and the Mount Bess Road property acquired by the Three Town Farms as one of its earlier purchases.  He said a certified letter from realtor Dan Maclure prompted him to respond.  He said he was told nothing about who was making the bid, or why.

“No indication of what the use would be after or anything,” he said.

Whatever the bid, it wasn’t enough.

“They haven’t made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” said Mr. Kranz, who bought the property in 1978 and built a large log house that still lacks water and electricity.

Another seasonal property owner who has been fielding repeated offers from Three Town Farms is a hunter from Colchester.  Scott Bevill’s Westmore property is close to where Perkins Lane meets the Town Farm Road — a rough, wooded road that extends down a steep rise and intersects with the Hudson Road just south of the Charleston Elementary School.

Mr. Bevill is one of the co-owners of roughly 100 acres of land and a hunting camp that he estimated is worth about $3,000.  “Maybe a little more, but not much,” he said in a phone interview Saturday morning.

He said he doesn’t know what kind of agreement the real estate agent has with Three Town Farms, but “we made it very clear we were not into selling.”

Mr. Bevill characterized the offers as not very much above the listed value.  And when he asked the realtor why Three Town Farms was so intent in buying the property, Mr. Maclure reportedly characterized its interest as an investment in northern woodland.

Initially Mr. Bevill said he like the idea of the surrounding property coming under one owner as a way of keeping the land intact.  But as buying patterns began to change — with Three Town Farms buying property on the northern side of the Hudson Road that included an old wooden one-room schoolhouse that had been retrofitted into a home — his suspicions began to mount.

“Something weird for someone so far away to be interested in this,” he told himself.

West and less than a mile down the Hudson Road is a small vegetable stand with the enterprising name of Devaney Farm & Greenhouse.  Bob Devaney and wife, Sharyl, have owned the stand and the house across the road for about eight years.

Over the last few years they have seen Three Town Farms buy up the neighboring properties.

“They own everything around us,” said Mr. Devaney.

He added that if things keep on going the way they had been going, their vegetable stand was going to be left surrounded by corporate-owned property, and they would be left “like Custer making a last stand.”

The couple has rejected at least two offers from Three Town Farms, including one from Pam Barber, who bristled during a recent interview at the characterization that she serves as an agent for Three Town Farms.

Instead, she said she only helps her husband in managing the property, although she recalled telling neighbors that “if they every wanted to sell to remember us.”

One of the offers to the Devaneys was sweetened by the promise they could remain on the land as long as they liked.  But Mrs. Devaney said she didn’t want to live under those conditions.

The couple said they were told “any place on the Hudson Road was worth only $1,000 an acre.”

One family who may have come out ahead from selling its property to Three Town Farms is the farm family of Burton Hinton.

“We didn’t want to sell, but I would have lost the whole damn thing,” said Mr. Hinton, whose family has owned the farm through four generations.

“I’m a dairy farmer.  I’ve been milking cows since I was 12 years old,” he said, adding that the high price of feed and the low price for milk had left him with no other option.

“It’s not what I wanted to see happen, but it was best for us and our two little girls.”

What cinched the deal, he said, was the decision by Three Town Farms to increase its offer by $100,000 and to give the family three years to stay on the farm without paying rent.

“They wanted it,” he said, speaking of the 356-acre farm that sold for $730,000 — a hefty hike over the town’s Grand List appraisal of $597,300.

While the Hinton Hill farm purchase may have pushed some wind opponents over the cusp, Three Town Farms leases the fields it owns at the end of Mount Bliss Road.  Three Towns bought property on both sides of the Mount Bliss Road in August 2008, getting a good deal on 265 acres by paying $117,820 for property listed at $145,300 by the Town of Brownington.

Tim Nadeau is the live-in hired man for Three Town Farms, and during a recent interview he said rumors have been spreading like wildfire that an industrial wind farm is going up on the property his absentee-landlord boss is buying.

He said he couldn’t go anywhere, whether it be shopping or to church, without being asked when the wind farm is coming to town.  The land he oversees is posted — he said Mr. Hirschfield is opposed to hunting and any use of his land by motorized vehicles that are steered with handlebars.  Both sides of the town road leading up to the house and the outbuildings have been cleared, and there are plans to install a guardrail on one of curves.  Three Town Farms is reportedly paying for the improvements

Presently, the town school bus won’t climb the hill during the winter, and Mr. Nadeau’s wife has to bring the kids to the bus at the junction with the Hudson Road.

Three Town Farm has employed Mr. Nadeau about a year, and he said he was happy with his job, which also provides he and his family with an attractive, sturdy looking house.

He said he heard Westmore is going to have a meeting over whether an industrial wind project should be sited on ridgelines within the town limits.

“I don’t know why they’re having a meeting to protest something that isn’t even here,” he said.

Westmore recently conducted a survey to see what its residents and taxpayers value when it comes to such natural resources as water quality, open fields, and high-elevation development.  Some say the survey was fueled by concerns over the protracted land-buying pattern of Three Town Farms.

But the head of the town planning commission, Louisa Dotoli, downplayed that motivation.  In a Tuesday interview she said the survey was part of the process of updating the town plan, and had not been triggered by concerns about a wind project coming to town.

Meanwhile Mr. Bevill, speaking from Colchester on the property he owns on Perkins Lane, said that he has come to form an attachment to the land and the people in Westmore.  Still, he expressed concern that his neighbors might sell out and leave him and hunting pals surrounded by posted land.

“We don’t want to pack up,” he said.  “We have become attached to it and don’t want to be displaced by some wind project by some guy from out of state.”

And regardless of Three Town Farms’ intent, he added, its large land purchases deserved public scrutiny, “even if we’re totally off the mark.”

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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