In early January, the Town of Dighton acquired a piece of living history: an 8.5-acre parcel comprised primarily of open fields, situated off of Council Oak Way.
Although not large in scale, the subject property nonetheless possesses an abundance of agricultural, water supply, historical, and cultural values that recommended it as a high priority for preservation. It has been in active agricultural use for centuries, and contains prime farmland soils as designated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
It directly abuts and buffers the town-owned Council Oak property and another town-owned property to the north, and is proximate to other parcels that are either protected or targets for protection, including several parcels owned by a local farmer. It is contained within an area identified by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation as a “Priority Heritage Landscape”. The Heritage Landscape designation was afforded only to those landscapes possessed of outstanding historical and cultural significance. Although this designation was focused specifically on the Town’s Council Oak preserve, it also speaks to the archeological and historical significance of the larger area including the subject property.
The subject property is contained within a Zone II Watershed Protection Area as identified by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The Somerset Water District owns a sizable adjacent tract that provides a buffer zone for a drinking water well located approximately 800 ft. to the north of the subject property.
Wildlands Trust first became aware of the property’s significance in 2012 through Roger and Donna Desrosiers, with whom we serve on the Taunton Wild and Scenic River Stewardship Council (the body that implements the stewardship plan associated with the river’s designation as a National Wild and Scenic River in 2009). Roger (Grey Fox) and Donna (Spirit Fox) are also members of a local Native American group, the Dighton Intertribal Council. They advised that the property’s owner, G. Lopes Inc., had announced intentions to remove gravel from the site, precipitating great concern among conservation advocates, historical preservationists, and the Intertribal Council.
Roger and Donna educated us and many others about the significance, and the sacredness, of the property and the surrounding landscape to local Native Americans. It was used and occupied for over 8,000 years up into colonial times, and once supported as many as nine Native American villages. Under the mighty Council Oak itself, the sachem Massasoit made the decision to assist the recently arrived and struggling Pilgrims, and later signed an agreement conveying what is now Dighton to European settlers. In the present day, local Native Americans consider the Council Oak property and surrounding properties, including the subject property, as an essential component of their heritage.
In partnership with Roger and Donna and Environmental Program Director Bill Napolitano of SRPEDD, the Taunton-based regional planning agency, Wildlands initiated efforts in 2012 to preserve the land, helping to negotiate a potential sales price and securing a substantial funding commitment from the Dighton Community Preservation Committee in 2013. But finding the remaining funds needed to close the deal proved challenging, and our preservation effort was shelved for several years.
Roger and Donna’s fervent commitment to protecting this critical part of the region’s heritage never wavered during the intervening years, even when the prospects of a successful outcome appeared bleak. In addition to Roger and Donna also kept open a line of communication with the Lopes family, and continually reaffirmed our collective interest in achieving a preservation outcome for the land.
In 2017, the landowner made it clear that he would seek a final resolution of the property’s future—it was preservation or some combination of gravel extraction and residential development. With this imperative looming, Bill suggested a heretofore unexplored strategy: utilize mitigation monies set aside in the early 2000’s to compensate for the loss of state-designated prime farmland in neighboring Taunton that was converted into an industrial park. These mitigation monies had sat untouched for over a decade, and awaited creative use to help preserve high-quality farmland at risk of conversion. With this in mind, Bill received approval from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and the Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources to allocate $150,000 of the mitigation monies to the project.
The Dighton Conservation Commission came up with the additional $150,000 needed to close the deal.
The Town of Dighton now owns the land, which will remain in active agricultural production in perpetuity.
Many thanks to Bill for his persistence and creative suggestion to pursue the mitigation funds, and to the Lopes family for granting us an extended window to consummate a purchase. We also wish to extend particular thanks to Roger and Donna for their invaluable assistance and unceasing dedication to achieving this long-sought preservation outcome. We at Wildlands Trust share their happiness with this outcome, and are pleased to have had a role in helping to facilitate the property’s preservation.