HAVERHILL — The city has partnered with Greenbelt of Essex County to purchase 20.4 acres at 97 Corliss Hill Road in an effort to protect the drinking water supply now and into the future.

The property, which is listed for agricultural use under Chapter 61A, is near East Meadow River, which feeds into Millvale Reservoir, which provides about 60% of the city's drinking water.

Assistant DPW Director Robert Ward told the City Council when it met Tuesday night that the property owner wants to take the land out of Chapter 61A and sell it and that city has the first right of refusal to purchase the property, which he said Mayor James Fiorentini wanted to exercise.

Ward said a proposal by Greenbelt will create a partnership whereby Greenbelt will own the front fields and the city will own the wooded area on the backside, which he said is the best area for watershed protection as its the closest part of the property to East Meadow River.

Vanessa Johnson-Hall, assistant director of land conservation for Greenbelt, said her organization supports the city's preferred option, which calls for Greenbelt to contribute $250,000 toward the $400,000 purchase price and the city contributes $150,000. 

The partnership gained the support of the council and the mayor.

The other option was for Greenbelt in conjunction with a private buyer to purchase the land for $400,000, with no cost to the city.

This is the second time this year that the city has moved forward on purchasing land that is important to the protection of its drinking water supply. 

In January, the city agreed to purchase 25 acres on Groveland Bridge Road through a "friendly taking" and has since paid D&D Realty Trust, with Richard Early Sr. as trustee, $272,000, officials said.

The land is off of Amesbury Road (Route 110) and next to East Meadow River, which also flows into Millvale Reservoir.

As part of this latest agreement, Johnson-Hall said the city will own about 13 acres of forested land on Corliss Hill Road, with Greenbelt holding a Conservation Restriction on that land ensuring it is always protected. It would also allow Greenbelt to maintain a public walking, biking and horseback riding trails on the property

She explained that Greenbelt would own the front fields, which are in agricultural use and would also be protected.

As a bonus to the city, she said an abutting neighbor has committed to preserving their farmland as well.

"So with both it means that more than 40 acres of important watershed land would be preserved," she said.

Johnson-Hall said she would like to see the front fields continue for active, but minimal agricultural use.

"We'll work to make sure any language in the Conservation Restriction is language the Water Department is comfortable with so any farming activity would protect the drinking water supply," she said.

Local farmer Wally Lesiczka, who lives on Corliss Hill Road and has his own farmland on that road, said his family has been farming the 97 Corliss Hill Road property for about 80 years and hopes to continue to do so. He said the fields are primarily used to harvest hay for his cattle and graze his cows for about a month each fall.

Lesiczka said he's been leasing the land from the Byra family and is happy to know the land will be saved from development.

"Even though I've reduced the number of cattle to 15, I have less land available for me to cut hay and keep them fed for the winter," he said. "If a development went in there, it would have eventually forced me out." 

Lesiczka said it's important to preserve the watershed, which is why he has not aggressively farmed vegetables on the property.

"I feel I've been safe farming this all my life and I'd like to work with Greenbelt to continue protecting this watershed," he said.

Councilor Timothy Jordan gave recognition to Rocks Village resident Christine Kwitchoff for her efforts to ensure the opportunity to protect this land didn't slip away.

"We were close to seeing this be developed and that would have been a real shame," Jordan said. 

Fiorentini said the partnership adds to the 200 acres of open space the city has protected over the last nine years.

"It helps to preserve the beauty of a neighborhood and I'm happy to work with Greenbelt," he said. 

Fiorentini said he might use American Recovery Act money else a grant to pay the city's share of the agreement.

City Solicitor William Cox said the next steps include meeting with Greenbelt over the next few days, as well as scheduling a public hearing before finalizing the purchase of the property.

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