This is a once-in-a-generation conservation opportunity.
Winchendon Forest LLC has 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 says it intends to construct a large-scale commercial solar development. The majority of Winchendon Forest LLC’s l;and has been enrolled in the Chapter 61 Current Use Enrollment Program, which gives towns a Righ of FIrst Refusal (ROFR) if the land is solde for development. We are asking the Town of Winchendon to assign their ROFR to Mass Audubon. If the assignment is made, Mass Audubon has secured financing and is committeed to purchasing and conserving the land if the assignment is made. By assigning the ROFR, the town can help 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.
Of the 1,365 acres, approximately 1,215 acres are in Winchendon and approximately 150 are in Ashburnham. Each Town has an opportunity to waive, exercise, or assign its ROFR. If one Town votes to assign, it affects all of the 1,365 acres.
The ROFR timeline is very short. The Winchendon Board of Selectmen is holding a public hearing to consider assigning the ROFR on December 12th at 7:00 pm in Town Hall. At the public hearing, the Selectboard could voteto assign the ROFR to Mass Audubon and ensure that this land is protected.
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. The latest estimates from Longroad’s representatives place the size of the proposed development at roughly 400 acres.This would be one of, if not the, largest solar developments in Massachusetts and would severely impact the conservation values of the land.
If it’s important to the Winchendon community—and Mass Audubon is granted the assignment—Mass Audubon and Mount Grace would commit to carefully exploring whether a much smaller, more appropriately sited community solar project could factor into the long-term planning for this property without jeopardizing the landscape’s ecological, recreational, and scenic values.
What would happen to the land if Mass Audubon gets the assignment?
Mass Audubon has the funding and capacity to act quickly to purchase the land within the ROFR timeline. Mass Audubon would be acting as an interim holder of the property, as ultimately, the hope is for the majority of the land to be added to the Winchendon Springs Wildlife Management Area, and be managed by the MA Department of Fish and Game for public access, including hunting. The MA Department of Conservation and Recreation may also be interested in owning some of the land near their existing Ashburnham State Forest. Mount Grace would be interested in adding some of the land to the existing Fern Glenn Conservation Area. Mass Audubon and Mount Grace are collaborating carefully with our public and private sector conservation partners.
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 would provide 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.