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Community Spotlight: Belchertown

Farms, Open Space Shape Belchertown’s Outlook

Doug Albertson

Doug Albertson says most residents don’t want big-box stores or other large-scale commerce, so even though Belchertown has grown, its bucolic character has largely remained unsullied.

The sun shone brightly on almost a foot of snow as Steve Lanphear pruned apple trees in his Belchertown orchard. Although the temperature hovered in the mid-20s, the owner of Sentinel Farms enjoyed the hours he spent working outside.

“I love doing this,” said Lanphear, who, with his wife, Meg, began cultivating the fruit trees on their land and running a maple-sugaring business after they retired.

Today the couple numbers among an active group of small farmers whose efforts continue the town’s agrarian history. “Belchertown has always been a place with a huge amount of open space, and our small farms play a role in maintaining agricultural activity in it,” Steve said. “It’s very important to keep that alive.”

William Shattuck concurs. His property includes about 200 acres of farmland, and he says customers who frequent the family’s two businesses — Devon Lane Farm Supply and Devon Lane Power Equipment — often tell him, ‘you have it all right here,’ as they talk about the woods, hayfields, brooks, and open space that are highly visible throughout the town.

Douglas Albertson says most Belchertown residents don’t want big-box stores or other commerce in their neighborhoods, so although the population has doubled since the ’70s, when people began moving from nearby cities such as Springfield and Chicopee, its bucolic setting remains largely unsullied.

“House building is the biggest industry in town, but we have done a lot to preserve and protect the character of the town — the rural look and feel of the community and its open space and farms. We are also working to promote agriculture and viable industry,” he said, speaking about the large number of loggers and licensed foresters who have businesses in Belchertown. “Plus, we have a very active agricultural commission that works to boost local farm products, which include organic vegetables and maple syrup.”

Shattuck, who co-chairs that commission, told BusinessWest that “it’s a different community than it was 30 years ago due to the huge number of new homes that have been built, but our farmers and suppliers hope to see a resurgence of farming here. There is a lot of interest in small startups and self-sufficient food supply.”

He noted that many students from the five nearby colleges want to farm in Belchertown using new technology. It’s possible due to plentiful acreage in the south end of town.

“It’s important for the long term to have enough viable agricultural land to produce more food,” Shattuck said, “and although politics can drive agricultural possibilities away, there are still many farmers here working their land.”

Judith Gillan, founding director of the New England Small Farm Institute, which promotes the development of small farms, said residents have differing opinions about what is best for Belchertown’s future. “But one thing that engages the whole community is a sense of its history and the desire to protect its rural look and feel. Even though the town needs businesses and more discussions about the future, this issue brings people together across demographic lines.

Bountiful Opportunity

The grounds of the former Belchertown State School offer the potential for growth, and MassDevelopment is taking steps to remediate the tillable acreage on the property. “It will give the town an opportunity to meet many of its objectives, including commercial business development,” Gillan said.

The first project will be an assisted-living center, and the agency recently put out an informal request for offers to build the residence on several acres that sit behind the town’s senior center. “People agree there is a demand and believe it is an acceptable and desirable use for the property,” Albertson said.

In addition, there are approximately 50 more acres, currently dotted with old buildings and a network of underground steam tunnels from the school’s steam plant, which offer potential for redevelopment.

That parcel does not include land once used as the farm for Belchertown State School, which was originally designed and operated as a self-reliant community in terms of food production.

But Gillan and other groups, including the town’s agricultural commission, have a vision for that part of the property. “We are in discussion with the state and want to establish a small enterprise zone on the farm parcel which would include small farms and also host food- and energy-related businesses,” she said. “We would like to see people take advantage of the opportunity to assist the town with conservation through small businesses.”

Judith Gillan

Judith Gillan says striking a balance between economic development and environmental and social values is key to Belchertown’s future.

Suitable examples she suggested include a small biodiesel operation or a business producing energy from recycled biomass. “We also want to create a discovery center which would tell the story of the town’s agricultural history and attract visitors.”

Shattuck spoke about how critical farming is to food production in the U.S. “We are trying to increase the food supply produced by local farms. It’s very important.”

Gillan concurred. “Balance is key, and if there was ever a time to be thoughtful about the future, it is now,” she said. “We want to offer economic-development opportunities and at the same time protect the environment and social values through open space and land conservation. For many years, Belchertown State School was off limits to the community, and our hope is that our efforts will result in a combination of economic development and preservation of environmental resources.”

Albertson said economic development has already begun to occur in the area, particularly on State Street. About a month ago, Easthampton Savings Bank moved into a newly constructed building situated at the entrance to the state school property, and a new diner not far from the site is set to open soon.

Shattuck added that people looking to open or relocate a business may find Belchertown attractive because four major roadways — Routes 9, 181, 21, and 202 — intersect at points in town and are well-traveled. “A railroad also runs through town, which adds to the possibilities.”

Quality of Life

Belchertown was one of the first ‘green’ communities designated by the state, and the Department of Public Works and the school system operate energy- conservation programs in all their buildings.

“We are a fairly progressive community,” said Albertson. “We put solar panels on the fire station in the last five years, and are continuing to plan as we step into the future and try to get away from using fossil fuels.”

Other projects in line with conservation include a sewer-treatment plant and a commercial solar operation slated to go online soon. “It’s a good, clean, quiet project on 11 acres,” Albertson said.

Cold Spring Country Club opened two years ago, offering an 18-hole, semi-private course and restaurant, all with panoramic views. UMass also operates a horticultural research station in Belchertown, which Shattuck calls the premier center in New England for research on orchards and fruit trees.

In fact, UMass is integral to the town’s vitality and has been the main employer for townspeople during the past decade. “The UMass transit system, which is operated by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, runs from Amherst into Belchertown, and a lot of students, faculty, and staff live here,” Albertson said.

Meanwhile, Quabbin Reservoir, which covers one-fifth of the town’s 54 square miles, offers ample space and opportunity for people to enjoy the outdoors via pursuits such as hiking and fishing.

Albertson reiterated that residents want to preserve open space for recreation, which includes hunting and snowmobiling. “Hunting is still important to many people, and we have a very active snowmobile club that maintains a number of trails,” he said. “We want to make sure we have a good balance.”

Unified Effort

Albertson said MassDevelopment will continue working on a plan for the former Belchertown State School property, which could include a mix of retail establishments, space for offices, some light research and development, and perhaps some small-scale residential development, although the latter will not be the focus. In addition, a set of commercial design guidelines created for the entire town, presented to the board of selectmen in November, is on the agenda for the spring town meeting.

So, growth will continue to move Belchertown into the future, but some things will remain unchanged, including the residents’ appreciation for the landscape that surrounds them. Although they may travel to other communities to shop, many feel their town does ‘have it all’ as a sanctuary from the stressors of city life.

“The people in Belchertown are very friendly,” Shattuck concluded. “It’s a great place to live.”

Belchertown at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 14,649 (2010); 12,968 (2000)
Area: 55.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: 17.72
Commercial Tax Rate: 17.72
Median Household Income: $52,467
Family Household Income: $60,830
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Town Administrator, Town Meeting
Largest employers: Town of Belchertown, Hulmes Transportation, Super Stop & Shop
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