IPSWICH — After a year of contentious hearings over the fate of a historic mansion here, the Planning Board may vote this week if it will approve permits to allow Ora, a global ophthalmology company, to convert the Waldingfield estate and grounds to a corporate campus.
The five-member board, appointed by the town manager, will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday to decide if the 40-acre property meets the criteria under the town’s Great Estate bylaw.
But that vote is not likely to end the fight over the future of the historic property.
If the Planning Board approves the permits for Ora, expect that the Friends of Waldingfield, which oppose the proposed use as a corporate campus, will take the issue to court.
Opponents have identified at least two issues they might appeal if the board approves the permits.
In turn, Ora could also challenge a negative decision in a suit against the town. It has an agreement with the current owner, Don Curiale, to purchase the property, which was on the market for about $5 million.
Ora, a global medical research company that develops products to combat blindness, has proposed to keep portions of the property as open space, maintain the great house and make large additions to existing buildings near the street under phase one of its plans.
According to a letter from “The People of Ora,” the company, which currently leases office space in Andover, plans to renovate and restore the existing home, barn and a caretaker’s cottage “with minimal change to the design and a focus on improving building sustainability and energy efficiency.” Ora would also add a guest house for visitors.
The tree-lined driveway with its two cement-dressed fieldstone columns would be removed. A larger entry from Waldingfield Road would be created to allow for the anticipated delivery trucks and car traffic. The gravel driveway would be replaced with machine-cut stones, precast cement finials and cobblestones.
“The design and improvements will be done with great care and sensitivity to the character of the existing property, and consideration of sightlines,” the People of Ora wrote.
The Waldingfield estate stands near the Hamilton town line on lush grounds where horses roam in open fields beside Greenbelt’s Julia Bird Reservation. First built along the Ipswich River in 1638, the estate has been transformed with relocation, expansion and a fire. It was rebuilt in 1929.
“The property itself is one of the most historically significant properties in our town,” Amanda Markos of Ipswich wrote in a letter. “It has existed for generations in its current state and is part of what makes the area unique in its landscape and character.”
Opponents argue that turning Waldingfield into a corporate campus for about 200 employees would create too much traffic for the narrow road leading to it.
“Waldingfield Road is designated a scenic road and should not be home to a corporate campus,” Markos wrote. “It simply cannot handle the traffic without permanently damaging the integrity of the road, as well as the enjoyment and safety of nearby neighbors and other members of the community.”
Ora’s president and chairman Stuart Abelson said the employees in the Boston area will come to Waldingfield two or three days a week. Most prefer to work at home, he said.
“We have a bunch of people all over the world. Seventy percent of them don’t want to go back to the office. I’m reinventing work. I’m reinventing what the office is,” Abelson said.
Ora at Waldingfield would be a mix of offices, meeting spaces and guest rooms for visiting employees. Outside, it will have horse barns, he said.
“There’s no such thing as a headquarters anymore in a modern, forward-thinking company,” said Abelson, who grew up in Andover and lives in Gloucester.
Ora has operations in China, Japan, Europe and Australia and will soon open offices in South America.
What Abelson said Waldingfield has got to be “magical. It’s got to inspire. You’ve got to want to go there.”
He added, “Instead of walking around the parking lot, hanging around the water cooler and drinking crappy coffee to bond, why not go down and throw a line in the Ipswich River? Saddle up a couple of horses?”
The Friends, which has suggested it might purchase Waldingfield to preserve it, argue that the town’s great estate preservation bylaw does not apply to the Ora proposal. It applies to structures with more than 30,000 square feet, but they maintain that Waldingfield is almost 900 feet less.
Ora is counting a crawl space that should not be allowed, the friends claim.
The company also proposes to build a larger guest house within a required 250-foot setback. The Friends’ Boston law firm wrote to the planning board that the company’s plans to demolish and re-construct a larger guest house is new construction, which is not allowed under the town bylaw.