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Christmas in February -- open space comes free

Dwight Sutton strolls the wilder reaches of the M&E tree farm, donated to the city as open space.  - ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo
Dwight Sutton strolls the wilder reaches of the M&E tree farm, donated to the city as open space.
— image credit: ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo

The third purchase under the city’s open space program comes at a very good price: free.

The 13-acre M&E Christmas tree farm, off Lovgreen Road east of the highway, is now in public ownership, thanks to a Bainbridge High School graduate who made good in the world of finance.

The land was donated by Elizabeth Grossman, who graduated from Bainbridge High School as Liz Helbig in 1962. Having retired to philanthropy at age 50 after a career in the investment field, Grossman now lives in California.

“Her interest is open space,” said Dwight Sutton, the Open Space Commission member who helped broker the donation. “She wants to see trails, and opportunities for people to get back to nature.”

Sutton, who many years ago purchased his own farm from Grossman’s mother, Marilie McMullen, approached Grossman about selling the property to the city when she returned to the island for a reunion last August.

The property was appraised at $600,000 and was about to go on the market. Sutton said the commission was prepared to make a purchase offer, but Grossman surprised them by donating it outright.

The city administration agreed to accept the parcel, and the deal was completed this week. A presentation is planned at Wednesday’s city council meeting.

“We hesitated for maybe two seconds,” Sutton said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity. Her generosity is something that we really need to acknowledge.”

The two parcels totaling 13 acres abut the southern boundaries of the Bentryn and Suyematsu farms off Day Road, creating a swath of agricultural open space nearly reaching Lovgreen Road.

Grossman purchased the land from Akio Suyematsu in 1984, and various family members operated a Christmas tree farm there until 2001. A wooden sales shack still sits near the front gate off Charles Place, adorned with a custom license plate – METREES – and listing the prices of grand, noble and other firs.

Having gone without maintenance for a year, the young trees now are aproned by field grass. Telltale fresh sawdust here and there suggests that over the recent holiday season, at least a few people ventured onto the grounds surreptitiously and made off with trees for their homes.

“It was U-cut, U-scamper off into the dark,” Sutton said.

Perhaps 500 Christmas trees remain in various stages of growth. The central property is bisected by a ravine with a seasonal creek coming off the Bentryn property; other corners range from unkempt to feral, and are well-buffered from neighboring cul-de-sacs.

“It was just an incredible gift to the community,” said Connie Waddington, open space commissioner. “The fact that it’s in the agricultural district makes it even more important.”

Future uses have yet to be determined, although McMullen said her daughter’s donation is conditioned on the property staying more or less as is.

“She’s very adamant that there should be no commercial (activity) on it at all,” McMullen said. “She wants it as open space...

“She’s hoping that by her making a donation, other people will make a donation too.”

The tree farm is the third property to be secured under the city’s open space preservation program, bankrolled by $8 million in voter-approved bond funds.

Since last summer, the Open Space Commission has spent about $1.5 million and secured 26 acres of land, including two waterfront parks.

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