BETHEL – Faced with the daunting prospect of trying to raise $600,000 to buy Arthur Ladd’s 130-acre Mayville farm, the Mahoosuc Land Trust is rising to the challenge.

“Our mission is to protect significant properties in this area,” said project consultant and Land Trust Director Marcel Polak. “This happens to be an important property with a high price tag. But we’ve never had a project show up that’s been so important and so threatened, so we will rise to whatever challenge there is.”

So far, that challenge has been to find funding in hard economic times to meet the $600,000 selling price for the “very rich, very visible” farmland that borders Route 2 and the Androscoggin River, land trust President Landon Fake said.

Formed in 1989, the trust’s mission is to conserve and protect significant lands, their natural values and traditional characteristics, and to assist communities in balancing growth with conservation.

Until last year, the biggest project the trust had successfully tackled in terms of money was buying the 19.5-acre Intervale Gateway hay fields.

After raising $70,000, it bought 14 acres with spectacular views of the Mahoosuc Mountains along the Route 26 approach to Bethel in 1995. It raised another $30,000 and bought an additional 4.5 acres in 2000.

Since the Ladd Farm went on the market 18 months ago through Maine Street Realty in Bethel, the trust has worked with broker Fran Head to land the deal.

“She’s been great,” Fake said Tuesday. “Fran’s been very helpful in both encouraging us and trying to make the deal work, but things have progressed very slowly.

“If we could figure out a way to fund it or have a reasonable expectation that funds will be available in the future and negotiate a sale based on that, then we may be able to do something.”

Buying Ladd’s 130 acres is important because of its intrinsic farming, scenic and recreational values, Polak said. The threat, however, is development.

“Everybody’s greatest fear is big-box development or strip mall development,” Fake said.

“That’s the $1 million question. The property is entirely in floodplain but it is totally developable. However, we can’t quantify what the threat is. Numbers of people don’t appear to be there for the big-box stores but something else could happen there and we can’t gauge that. It’s a prime piece of property,” Polak added.

Bethel has no zoning laws to prevent a major retailer or grocer from developing the property, but it does have a floodplain ordinance.

“This does not eliminate the possibility of development, but it makes it more expensive because you would have to put in a lot of fill,” Fake said.

“However, there is an argument that if there’s going to be commercial development in Bethel, (the Ladd property) is where it should be. There’s already some development there and from the perspective of the land trust, it’s by far the most visible land in Bethel,” he said.

What the trust would like to do is buy the land but hold onto development rights and sell it to a farmer at farmland prices, which Polak said currently range from $650 to $1,200 an acre.

“Right now, there’s no way in heaven that a farmer could afford to pay the purchase price,” Polak said.

The land trust could, however, also buy it and build a river trail along it while saving the other part for habitat protection or allow both Newry and Bethel to construct desired playing fields upon it.

“This is the classic ‘build it and they will come’, but we’re still in the phase of trying to accomplish the project. It’s a big challenge without a doubt, but we’re in the ballpark,” Polak said.

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