HAVERHILL — The city is moving toward buying 33 acres near its reservoir, which will protect the drinking water supply and create hiking trails for the public.

The City Council has given Water Department officials permission to apply for a state grant which would be used to buy a portion of a 33-acre parcel on Whittier Road.

Robert Ward, the city's deputy public works director, said Haverhill has budgeted the $200,000 needed to buy the land, but is seeking the grant through the state's Drinking Water Supply Grant Program, which could provide $100,000 toward the purchase.

The land is near Millvale Reservoir, which supplies more than 70 percent of the city's drinking water.

"The location of this property makes it an important parcel for water supply protection,'' said Ward, adding the land runs 1,000 feet along East Meadow River.

In a letter to the council, Ward said the Water Department was contacted last year by the Essex County Greenbelt Association about possibly buying the land, which the association secured earlier from owners Arnold Ayer Seaver and the late Richard Seaver through an option agreement.

The city has until Sept. 30 to complete its application for the grant, but Ward told the council that the $200,000 had been included in the budget for the 2016 fiscal year.

"Whether or not the city is awarded the grant, we feel the city should purchase the property," he said.

Ward also said the land can be used for "passive recreation" activities such as hiking, hunting, cross country skiing and wildlife viewing. 

Educational programs and sustainable timber management under an approved forest management plan are also permitted.

Several councilors spoke in support of the land purchase. Councilor Thomas Sullivan said it would be a "great opportunity to protect the river" and thanked the Seaver brothers for their generosity.

Councilor William Ryan agreed, but said he was was curious how the Essex County Greenbelt Association would be involved in the future.

"I know it's like voting against motherhood and apple pie, but is it a good idea to give the greenbelt veto?" asked Ryan, adding that he hoped Haverhill could eventually eliminate the use of septic tanks in that area by hooking them up to the city's sewer system.

“When we’re looking at 50 to 75 years from now, who knows what the situation is going to be down there?” he said. “We may need the land for something and we may no longer need it for a watershed because we’ll have everyone on the sewage (system)."

He said the city has enough authority to protect the parcel without giving veto power to an organization which may not be in existence forever.

Councilor Michael McGonagle assured Ryan that the state legislature has the authority to deal with situations of that kind. He also took a good-natured dig at Ryan's seniority.

“If things change, say 50 years from now, Councilor Ryan will probably still be on the council. There is a way to go back to the state, apply to both houses and the governor if we want to change that use," McGonagle said. "There’s nothing better than protecting open space and keeping the drinking water as pure as we can."

"This is something we should get behind," added Councilor William Macek.

Macek asked Ward what the likelihood would be of acquiring the state grant which would cut the amount of money the city would pay to as low as $100,000.

Ward replied that he believes the city has a good chance to get at least some state money, but that it cannot reapply for the grant in consecutive years.

Following the council decision, Ward was enthused about the prospect of adding more land to buffer the reservoir.

"One of the best ways to protect drinking water is to buy the land," he said. "I think the project is a good fit for the grant.''

Follow Peter Francis on Twitter @PeterMFrancis

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