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Mount Grace and Mass Audubon Celebrate Historic Vote to Protect 1,365 Acres of Forest in Winchendon

Posted Friday, December 22, 2023
— News


The Towns of Winchendon and Ashburnham had a choice to make:  allow 1,365 acres of forested land to be sold to a solar developer with up to 400 acres of trees replaced with industrial-scale solar installations or listen to the impassioned pleas of scores of residents asking for the land to be protected forever. Both boards unanimously chose the latter, thanks in part to a collaborative grassroots campaign led by Mount Grace and Mass Audubon.

At the December 12th Winchendon Board of Selectmen Meeting, after hours of moving testimony from a standing-room-only crowd of Winchendon residents, the Board voted unanimously to assign the right to purchase the land to Mass Audubon. On December 19th, the Ashburnham Select Board followed suit, affirming public support for land protection in our region. 

These decisions are a monumental victory for wildlife, the climate, clean water, and the residents of Winchendon & Ashburnham who will be able to enjoy these pristine forests and streams for generations to come. With this approval, the groundwork is laid to begin work on this important project.

The Winchendon vote to protect this woodland was loudly applauded by the standing-room-only crowd of residents who chose protection of nature over profit, as the solar project would have generated new revenue for the town. Mass Audubon, bolstered by a recent $25M donation that will serve as the foundation of an even larger $75M land conservation fund, will purchase the property—which will greatly expand a regionally significant forest corridor—and then eventually turn it over to the state. This new fund is intended to leverage more land protection opportunities of this sort across the state and will help meet the Commonwealth’s goal of protecting 30% of Massachusetts land by 2030, to solve for the twin crises of climate change and loss of biodiversity.

“This was clearly an issue that brought the people of Winchendon together to advocate to protect this piece of our town’s natural environment that is important for so many different reasons,” said resident Jane LaPointe. “Protecting this land is a powerful statement about who we are and a legacy that we have all helped to make possible.”

Streams that are part of the headwaters of the Millers River flow down from the high ground in these forests, where the tree cover and wetlands help maintain water quality in the river and nearby Sunset Lake. The land is directly connected to another 1,500 acres that are already protected, creating a contiguous forest corridor that reaches past Lake Monomonac to connect with protected lands in New Hampshire.

This connectivity is what makes the forest so important for conservation. Climate change is degrading many habitats and negatively impacting biodiversity, but large interconnected sites with diverse topography are more likely to support a wide array of native plants and animals. As a result, the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program considers two-thirds of these woods to be among the most critical land in Massachusetts for sustaining wildlife and biodiversity.

“We are ecstatic to be an organization uniquely positioned to come to the table quickly with the funding to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation conservation opportunity to battle climate change and protect the rich biodiversity of our region,” said David O’Neill, President of Mass Audubon. “Seeing so many people actively speak up to protect the outdoors was incredibly moving and courageous, and I’m so proud of and thankful for our team, Mount Grace, and the people of Winchendon for their passion and forethought.”

The land was enrolled in the state’s Chapter 61 program, which means it cannot be sold for development without giving the Town the option to either match the sale price or assign that option to a conservation group. The Town only had 120 days to make that decision.

While Winchendon was not in a position to match the $6 million purchase price, Mass Audubon stepped in with the capital to save the property from development while Mount Grace worked as a vital community partner leading up to the vote. “The community’s incredible work and moving testimony in support of this project really showed the deep relationships the people of Winchendon and Ashburnham have to this place,” said Mount Grace Project Manager Aaron Nelson. “Mount Grace is honored by the chance to help protect not just the land, but people’s connections to it, by making sure it will always be open for hiking, hunting, and fishing.”

Citizens noted that Winchendon already has more solar projects than its neighbors, with eight fields operating and another slated to come online, totaling 130 acres of installations.

Likewise, both Mount Grace and Mass Audubon strongly support the rapid deployment of solar to meet Massachusetts’ net-zero targets. Growing Solar, Protecting Nature, a recent report from Mass Audubon and Harvard Forest, shows Massachusetts does not need to sacrifice large, un-fragmented forests like this one to meet climate goals if developers focus less on large-scale, ground-mount projects in favor of smaller arrays on roofs, parking lots, and other existing infrastructure and on already degraded parcels. Protecting natural and working lands, and the carbon sequestration they provide, is vital to meeting our climate goals.



A once-in-a-generation conservation opportunity.

Winchendon Forest LLC notified the towns of Winchendon and Ashburnham that it intends to sell a 1,365 acre property to an entity called Longroad Land Holdings II, LLC for $6 million. Longroad proposed construction of a large-scale commercial solar development. The majority of Winchendon Forest LLC’s land has been enrolled in the Chapter 61 Current Use Enrollment Program, which gives towns a Right of First Refusal (ROFR) if the land is sold for development. In a Selectboard Meeting on December 12th, we asked the Town of Winchendon to assign their ROFR to Mass Audubon. Mass Audubon has secured financing and is committeed to purchasing and conserving the land. After two hours of public comments supporting our proposal, the town unanimously voted to assign the ROFR,helping keep the Winchendon Forest LLC land as forest, forever. 

Context—What is Chapter 61?

The Chapter 61 Current Use Enrollment Program is an important tool for landowners. In exchange for agreeing to keep land in forestry, agriculture, or open space for a set period of time, landowners receive significant property tax reductions. When land is enrolled in Chapter 61, the Town automatically gets a “Right of First Refusal” (ROFR). If Chapter 61 land is proposed to be sold for development, the Town has 120 days to exercise the ROFR, or waive its rights. Importantly, a Town can also assign its ROFR to a conservation organization, like a land trust. If the rights are exercised, it means the Town or land trust is matching the offer to purchase the land and protect it. These types of partnerships are often critical, since towns may not have the capacity to match offers within the strict 120-day timeframe on their own.

Conservation Values

The Winchendon Forest LLC land:

  • Represents approximately over 1,300 acres of unfragmented woods and streams.
  • Contains portions of the headwaters of the Millers River, and the watershed of Sunset Lake and Lake Monomonac.
  • Includes a backbone of forests and wetlands that maintains water quality in those headwater streams.
  • Connects directly with more than 1,500 acres of surrounding protected land.
  • Provides excellent opportunities for expanded public access and recreational opportunities.
  • Includes more than 850 acres that the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program considers the most critical to sustaining wildlife and biodiversity in Massachusetts.

Why not solar?

Mount Grace and Mass Audubon are not opposed to solar development. Expanded solar capacity is necessary and important. However, after careful analysis of this particular site, we share the assessment that the scale of solar development proposed is incompatible with the conservation of the exceptional resources it contains. If Longroad’s proposed development of roughly 400 acres had been successful, it would have been one of, if not the, largest solar developments in Massachusetts and would have severely impacted the conservation values of the land.

Community Alignment

Protection the property is aligned with Winchendon’s 2020 Community Master Plan and its 2015 Open Space and Recreation Plan based on it’s large acreage, biodiversity, ecological value, and the role it plays in connecting thousands of acres of undeveloped, unfragmented land. Portions of the property also lie in the target area for land acquisition and conservation specified by the Winchendon Open Space and Recreation Plan. Protection of the land in Ashburnham is also supported by the 2023 Ashburnham Open Space and Recreation Plan.

The Towns of Winchendon and Ashburnham have partnered with land trusts over the past decades to protect land near the Winchendon Forest LLC property. Assigning the ROFR to Mass Audubon provides an opportunity to buffer those past investments and ensure that as the populations of Winchendon and Ashubrnham grows, residents will continue to have meaningful access to protected open space.