EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 10, 2013

One of last farms in Andover may soon be up for sale

By Bill Kirk

---- — ANDOVER — One of the last remaining farms in town has gone fallow and is now ripe for development.

Strawberry Hill Farm, located at 254 Lowell St., for years had been a popular farm stand as people from around the region flocked there for fresh produce.

But over the winter, longtime farmer Peter Loosigian died. His son, also Peter, has decided not to pick up where his father left off.

Now, the 10 acres of rolling farm land may soon be up for sale, and what used to be 10 acres of prime farm land is now 10 acres of prime real estate.

If it does go on the open market, it could be sold to a developer, who would try to get the most out of the property by turning it into a single-family home development, say local officials and real estate experts.

The zoning in the area allows 30,000-square-foot lots, which could allow for 10 to 15 houses on the land, depending on the layout of the road or roads through the property.

“If a private developer acquires the asset, they would look to maximize its value, with single-family homes or another residential project,” Town Planner Paul Materazzo said.

One variation could be building a cluster development, which allows a developer to increase the number of units by siting them in a grouping or attaching them — like townhouses — to leave more of the property as open space.

“Developers’ eyes must be popping out of their heads,” Materazzo said. “It’s fairly flat land. It has sewer and water. You don’t have to clear trees. And they’re not making any more land in Andover. ... There might be a premium on this property.”

Nearby, homes have been selling for anywhere from $400,000 to $800,000. A 10-lot development of $800,000 homes would put the property’s worth at around $8 million.

It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, Realtor Doug Howe of Prudential Howe & Doherty in Andover said.

While the housing market has made a rebound, banking policies have changed recently, making it harder for developers to buy land without putting a lot of money down and complying with numerous other restrictions.

“Banks aren’t lending money for land acquisition,” he said. “There’s not a lot of demand for lots. Banks have made it tough for builders to develop.

“In the old days, banks were comfortable financing the land and construction, because everything sold. Now, not everything sells. Most banks are holding real estate they don’t want to hold. A lot of people are upside down in their houses, and the banks are just holding them.”

While Howe said he’s sure there will be interest in the land, he noted many developers have simply disappeared over the years.

“A lot of the builders we had seven to 10 years ago didn’t survive,” he said.

With those and other factors in mind, Loosigian needs to make some decisions based on precise calculations — to either partner with a developer, sell the land outright, hire an engineer and get a development pre-approved, or simply hold onto the property.

“There are ways to structure a deal so that you sell part, donate part and don’t get taxed,” he said. “It’s all about how much is left in your pocket.”

Then there’s the fluctuating market. Lots selling for $25,000 at Indian Ridge when it was first built ended up being worth a lot more a few years later.

More recently, on High Plain Road, a two-lot parcel sold for $625,000, or about $310,000 per lot. But they were pre-approved for development, Howe said.

“I don’t think it’s going to be real difficult to get somebody to buy it,” he said. “But it depends on how you want to do it.”

Loosigian said he has been in very preliminary discussions with a representative of the Korean church, next door at 244 Lowell St.

“They have some interest,” Loosigian said, adding that the church may want to develop it into over-55 housing for some of its aging parishioners.

Yang Hwan Kim, the senior pastor, said the church is “interested” in creating a “multi-purpose building, senior housing and a Christian school, if possible.”

He said church leaders have a construction company in mind and have gone so far as to hire a lawyer to review various possibilities.

“It would be wonderful for us,” he said. “Now, we have to provide transportation for older people. With this plan, they would be living next door.”

He added that he wasn’t sure if the town would approve the plan, but that the church would also create a community space within its project for public use.

In the past, if such a parcel had come on the market, the town might be interested in purchasing it and turning it into recreational fields for sports or other uses.

Not now.

Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski said Town Meeting would likely not be interested in purchasing Strawberry Hill at this time.

Previously, farm land has held tax restrictions so that the town had the right of first refusal on whether to buy the property. In this case, Strawberry Hill Farm has no such restrictions, meaning that it can be sold to the highest bidder.

“I’m sure it will get scooped up,” Stapczynski said. “We couldn’t compete on the open market.”

Loosigian said another possible use for the property, which was proposed by another, potential buyer, would be as a home for people with Alzheimer’s disease, which is what his mother died from.

“That’s something that’s close to my heart,” he said.

Ideally, Loosigian would love to see the land remain as a farm. But he doesn’t see that as likely.

“I’d prefer it if Phillips (Academy) had an agriculture department, they could pay me what it’s worth, restore the old farmhouse and keep it as open space,” he said.

“Overall, I wish I was a farmer so I could continue and it would be good for the town. I’m just not a farmer. And I can’t sell it to a farmer. Those days are gone.”

For a look back at Strawberry Hill Farm and the Loosigian family’s legacy tied to the property, including more photos of the farmland and the family who farmed it, pick up a copy of this week’s Andover Townsman, or visit andovertownsman.com.