Athol town manager to negotiate long-term lease with equestrian center

  • The New England Equestrian Center of Athol, located at 820 New Sherborn Road, will soon begin negotiations on a 50-year lease for 221 acres of town-owned property. The Selectboard has given Town Manager Shaun Suhoski the go-ahead to enter into talks with the non-profit organization. Staff photo/Greg Vine

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 7/15/2021 1:34:40 PM
Modified: 7/15/2021 1:34:44 PM

ATHOL — Athol’s Selectboard has given Town Manager Shaun Suhoski the go-ahead to negotiate a long-term lease for two parcels of town-owned property which have been used for a number of years by the nonprofit New England Equestrian Center of Athol.

Caroline Mansfield, a member of NEECA’s board of directors, explained at the Selectboard meeting on July 6 that the organization had, in 1999 or 2000, purchased about 150 acres of property off New Sherborn Road, property which abutted parcels owned by the town. Since that time, NEECA has twice been given permission to use those parcels.

During that time, said Mansfield, “We’ve taken the park from basically just wild land to a facility that hosts about 20 events a year. We have a 100-by-240-foot arena, grandstand, confidence course, trail system, round pen, and camping area. But one of the things is our relationship with the management of the property is tenuous at best.

“Our next step is to hopefully put in an indoor arena up there, but you’re talking a lot of money.”

“It’ll probably be close to a million dollars,” interjected fellow board member Sue Ellen Mowcomber.

“So,” Mansfield continued, “not having an official agreement in terms of long-term use of the land hurts us both in our grant options and also in donations and bequests by members. That’s why we’re looking for this lease, to just give us a little bit more of a long-term security to manage the park.”

NEECA’s proposal for use of the property was reviewed by a committee made up of Suhoski, Selectboard member Andy Sujdak, Public Works Director Dick Kilhart, Town Planner Eric Smith, and Open Space and Recreation Committee member Brian Hall. Board Chair Rebecca Bialecki noted that the committee had given a positive recommendation for a 50-year lease on the town’s property.

Suhoski added that voters at town meeting had approved the leasing of the property, and that proposals for the use of the land were sought by the town. As it turned out, NEECA was the only group to submit a plan.

“We were happy that it was NEECA,” Suhoski told the Athol Daily News, “because they’ve been managing that property for the town for the last 20 years under, I guess, what you’d call license agreements with the Boards of Selectmen.”

He said that under the state constitution, the land can only be used for purposes of recreation.

“I was asked, on behalf of the board, to begin negotiating the terms of the lease,” he explained. “It’s not really intended to be a financial lease. It probably will be a $1 lease.

“But the community benefit is that we have proven stewardship of the land. They’ve made improvements up there. It’s really quite a wonderful place. And there will be dates developed for community or civic events to be held there, so it will have other benefits as well. And, of course, they will build the equestrian programming.

“It’s a different kind of economic development, but it’s bringing other people into our community for these types of outdoor events, and that can have economic spin-off. So, it’s really a win all the way around for the community, I think.”

Suhoski said most of the negotiating will likely center around setting aside blackout dates for community events, what types of milestones may be built into the lease for NEECA to hit as they develop their vision, and what would happen should the organization at some point dissolve.

“We’re very interested in having non-equestrian events that are compatible with the park,” Mowcomber told the board. “We really want the park to be used as much as it can be used.”

“It does seem to me that the financial viability of an equestrian park in our community,” said board member Mitch Grosky, “does dovetail very well with the idea that we see ourselves as a hub for environmental activity. So, I’m very much inclined to support this.”

Board member Stephen Raymond asked about the prospect of hunting on the property.

“Our position has been all along there should be no hunting of any kind should be permitted at the park,” Mansfield answered. “We just don’t think it’s a compatible activity with the primary purpose of the park.”

She noted the issue had been discussed at two previous board meetings, in 2009 and again in 2014, and both times the board determined that any determination regarding the activity was up to NEECA.

The vote allowing Suhoski to negotiate the lease agreement with NEECA was approved by the board, with only Raymond casting a dissenting vote. In all, the lease will cover 221 acres of town-owned property.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com


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