Like many other land trusts, the founding of Upper Charles Conservation Land Trust, Inc. began with the love of a particular piece of land by a small group of individuals. John Rudisil was the Director of Corporate Services for the Avery Dennison Company that was headquartered in Framingham, MA and made paper products. Avery Dennison was purchased by an out-of-state owner that wanted to dispose of “unusable” corporate assets.
One of those assets was a 109 acre tract of forest land (subsequently known as “Wenakeening Woods”) located off Summer and Highland Streets in Holliston, MA near the Avery Dennison warehouse facility. John Rudisil wanted to see that the land remained undeveloped and that Avery Dennison got a tax write off. So, he contacted The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) to see if it was interested in receiving the land as a gift.
Valerie Talmadge of TTOR thought that the land had value but that it also had potential risks. Specifically, upgradient from Wenakeening Woods and the Avery Dennison warehouse was the Axton Cross chemical facility. Built in 1967, Axton Cross acted as a storage building and distributor of industrial chemicals. The company received liquid and dry chemicals in bags and drums and then mixed them into chlorinated solvents (such as hydrochloric acid) which were used to degrease manufacturing equipment in factories. In the early 1990’s, Axton Cross went bankrupt and owed a large amount of back taxes to the Town of Holliston.
Valerie approached John Thomas of the Holliston Conservation Commission to see if the town wanted to acquire the land. It did not, again, because of the fear of the cost of any environmental cleanup. But John Thomas was not stymied. Not only was John an ardent environmentalist, he was also an entrepreneur. He was president of an engineering and surveying company known as Beals & Thomas Inc. Valerie and John came up with a plan to save the 109 acre forest from development and to protect both TTOR and the Town of Holliston from the potential liability associated with the neighboring Axton Cross property.
TTOR had an affiliate corporation called the Massachusetts Land Conservation Trust, Inc. (MLCT) which would buy the land from Avery Dennison for one dollar. MLTC would then hold the land for a short time while a new local land trust could be formed to acquire title to the land. The new land trust was initially conceived as being the Holliston Land Trust. Since the new land trust would have no assets, there was nothing of value that it could put at risk in acquiring the 109 acre forest land with a potential environmental problem.
From the beginning, John Thomas and his friend George Fiske had a bigger vision for their land trust than just protecting a single parcel of land in Holliston. They wanted to create a regional land trust that could conserve land in the Upper Charles River Valley that included the towns of Dover, Holliston, Hopkinton, Medfield, Medway, Milford, Millis, Natick, and Sherborn. They wanted Upper Charles to grow and to become as influential as other regional land trusts in Massachusetts such as the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the Compact of Cape Cod Land Trusts, Essex County Greenbelt Association, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, and Sudbury Valley Trustees.
Upper Charles Conservation Land Trust, Inc. was founded on August 6, 1992. The original incorporators were Holliston residents and landowners: John Thomas as President, Jeffrey Moore as Treasurer, Harlan Doliner as Clerk, and George Fiske as Member. The Articles of Organization with its Amendments stated that the purpose of Upper Charles was “land conservation to benefit the general public, historic preservation, and the protection of natural resources.” The MLCT turned over the fee simple interest in Wenakeening Woods to Upper Charles and then TTOR acquired a conservation restriction (CR) on the land. In addition, Upper Charles carved out three lots for sale to homeowners in order to generate a small endowment with which to manage Wenakeening Woods.
Over the years, Upper Charles has worked with other organizations to protect a variety of lands for public use. In 1998, Upper Charles and the Sherborn Rural Land Foundation acquired the fee simple interest in the 80 acre Humphrey property on Western Avenue in Sherborn which is adjacent to the town’s Barber Reservation. The Town of Sherborn owns a CR on the property. In 1998, Upper Charles and the Sherborn Rural Land Foundation completed a limited development on the Bilfinger property on Woodland Street that preserved a majority (45 acres) of the land. In 2001, the Town of Sherborn acquired the 42 acre Wilson Farm (also known as “Hidden Meadow”) with fundraising support from Upper Charles and the Sherborn Rural Land Foundation that co-own a CR on the property.
The organizational structure of Upper Charles as a regional land trust is especially important as it pertains to our ability to affect the future use of large tracts of land that have a regional presence. Such a place is Medfield State Hospital located primarily in Medfield (225 acres) but also with acreage in Dover (37 acres) and water rights to Farm Pond in Sherborn. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts closed this large mental hospital in 2003. There were many proposals for the re-use of this land including the creation of an 18 hole private golf course and the creation of over 400 units of housing.
It was the goal of Upper Charles to preserve as much of the open space at the Medfield State Hospital as possible, especially given the fact that the hospital grounds abut the Charles River and many adjacent acres owned by TTOR, Massachusetts Audubon, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation. In 2004, Upper Charles obtained funding from a private family foundation to finance a hydrological study of the aquifer underlying the hospital land. The study confirmed that water shortages and water quality were a problem in this region and that projects like golf courses that used a lot of water should be avoided. In 2003, Upper Charles helped to persuade the Dover and Sherborn town meetings to acquire the 37 acres of the former hospital land in Dover for the Dover-Sherborn Regional Schools. The Department of Recreation and Conservation and the Town of Medfield are in the process of making final plans for the remaining open spaces in Medfield. An environmental clean up is ongoing and eventually a future use will be found for the core campus that contains most of the derelict hospital buildings.
John Thomas’ vision for Upper Charles also included the creation of a 26 mile recreational walking and biking trail (the “Upper Charles Trail”) along abandoned railroad tracks in the towns of Holliston, Milford, and Sherborn and along roadways in the towns of Ashland, Framingham, and Hopkinton. In order to further this project, Upper Charles hired its first Executive Director, Justine Kent-Uritam, in 1996. Justine wrote grants and obtained funding from a variety of sources including the Boston Foundation, the Yawkey Foundation, the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife & Environmental Law Enforcement, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the Milford Water Company, the Charles River Watershed Association, and the Conservation Commissions of Holliston, Hopkinton, and Milford.
John and Justine worked with individuals and local governments in all six towns in order to generate support for the Upper Charles Trail. In three towns, local citizens took over most of the fundraising associated with this ambitious project. In Milford, Bob Buckley, Chairman of the Conservation Commission, and Reno DeLuzio, the Town Planner, orchestrated the raising of millions of dollars from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, town meeting, and private entities in order to complete Milford’s 6.7 mile portion of the trail. In Holliston, Robert Weidknecht of the Holliston Trails Committee obtained large amounts of funding of for its 6.7 mile portion of the trail from the town’s Community Preservation Committee. And in Sherborn, John Higley of Upper Charles obtained funding from the town for its one-half mile segment of the trail. At present, the public is able to walk the 13.7 mile trail in those three towns, although the surface of the trail varies a great deal from town to town. The Town of Hopkinton formalized its interest in the regional trail both by establishing an Upper Charles Trail Committee in 2012 and by appropriating CPA funds to establish a half mile segment of old rail bed known as the Center Trail. Hopkinton and the towns of Ashland and Framingham need to show more interest in the trail before the ultimate circular design can be realized.
Upper Charles was originally organized as a private operating foundation. Over the years, the Board became convinced that there were significant advantages to potential donors if Upper Charles were to convert to a public charity even though this change meant that Upper Charles would have to engage in annual fundraising campaigns. Therefore, the Board instructed Justine to obtain 501 (c) (3) public charity status for Upper Charles. She obtained provisional status on September 1, 2000 and permanent status on October 23, 2006. This means that all donations to Upper Charles are now fully tax deductible.
Over the years, Upper Charles worked to support the concept of statewide legislation that would enable cities and towns to have a dedicated revenue source for the acquisition of land for conservation purposes. In 2000, the Community Preservation Act was passed by the state legislature. Upper Charles worked with its member towns to adopt the CPA. Holliston, Hopkinton, and Medway town meetings approved the CPA in 2001 and Millis approved it in 2006. The towns of Dover, Natick, and Sherborn have defeated it and Medfield and Milford have never voted on it yet.
This is a challenging time for all land trusts. The shifting sands of federal support, changing tax incentives, and talk of land trust accreditation present an ongoing challenge to long term planning. However, there is a role that a regional land trust like ours can play in the preservation of open spaces. It is becoming apparent that we should expand our board membership, perhaps with a new level of associate member. We should seek to collaborate and build lasting cooperative relationships with other local land trusts so we can better learn about best practices and perhaps look into sharing resources if that would help Upper Charles to become more effective and efficient.
Going forward, Upper Charles seeks to continue to help towns preserve open spaces that are valuable to them. We will encourage all the towns in our region to adopt the CPA. We will also need to carefully assess our role, if any, in the holding of CR’s on lands acquired with CPA funds. We also hope to see the final construction of the Upper Charles Trail. Lastly, we seek to provide good stewardship of the lands under our immediate control.