Burnett House deal collapses; BOS still hopes for solution

by beth on February 18, 2015

Post image for Burnett House deal collapses; BOS still hopes for solution

Above: A plan to restore the old Stone House and property at 84 Main Street has fallen through. (Photo contributed by Kate Matison)

A deal to restore the Burnett estate at 84 Main Street has fallen through. But selectmen still hope the owner and community can find a way to preserve the historic home.

Jon Delli Priscolli is walking away from a proposal negotiated between him and Town officials this fall. Under that proposal, Town Meeting voters would have been asked to purchase a preservation restriction on the property to fund restoration.

In a statement issued last night the owner explained his decision:

Ultimately, the agreement as requested by the Town would have been more restrictive than I could accept.

Last night, the Board of Selectmen held an unrelated joint session with the Planning Board. The BOS took the opportunity to update the public. Selectman John Rooney told the audience that the board just heard from Priscolli that day.

According to Rooney, the owner:

continues to be extremely interested working with the town in preserving the main structure and the other structures and maintaining the non-divisibility of the property. It’s just not going to be via preservation restriction that we had been negotiating on.

The selectman said that to preserve the house, “we now need to explore as a town and as a community other options”. By Priscolli’s statement, the options are to have the property purchased by the Town or an owner interested in preservation. 

Rooney claimed the primary reason for Priscolli’s decision was too many personal and private obligations to follow through on his original intention of restoring the property.

I followed up with Priscolli’s spokesperson, Doug Pizzi, to understand what happened between the announced proposal in November and now. His answer:

The agreement on the house between Jon and the town was never able to be finalized to both parties’ satisfaction.  That, plus the passage of time, and with it, the realization by Jon where restoring the house would fit in with his other professional and personal obligations, prompted him to reconsider the deal.

Back in November, the Town and owner issued a statement on an agreement in principal. Restrictive rights would have been purchased by the Town for $750,000 using Community Preservation Act funds.

While terms were detailed, the agreement still needed to be written into contract. In addition, an application needed to be filed with the Community Preservation Committee. The CPC would need to hold public hearings before making a recommendation to Town Meeting.

Originally, officials intended to hold a Special Town Meeting. In December, they announced that the deal wasn’t advancing quickly enough. They would present the article at Annual Town Meeting in April.

Last night, Priscolli released the statement below:

While the Town of Southborough and I acted in good faith, after the passing of several months and evaluating all of the professional and personal obligations I have in front of me, I have decided that I do not wish to continue the Burnett House negotiations with the Town. Ultimately, the agreement as requested by the Town would have been more restrictive than I could accept.

While I cannot carry this property indefinitely, as I have said in the past, I wish to see the house preserved if possible. So I’m willing to work with the Town to either purchase the estate or find another buyer who is interested in preserving this historic property. These options will play out over the coming months and I hope we can find a solution amenable to the town and my family.

For past coverage of the preservation efforts, click here.

Update (12/18/15 12:28 pm): I mistakenly referred to Doug Pizzi as Priscolli’s attorney. He is the property owner’s spokesperson.

1 Doreen A February 18, 2015 at 12:59 PM

I know that some people will not agree with me but this deal falling through is for the best. Although I respect the historical value of this property, it is not a necessity to our town. Let’s invest in our roads, transfer station, police, fire, schools, etc. to better our everyday lives. Furthermore, Mr. Delli Priscolli is a business man and obviously knows this deal wasn’t in his best financial interest. He also purchased the property when no one else would and should be able to do what he wants with it.

[Editor’s Note: Doreen contacted me to explain that she was using Desiree’s computer. It apparently autofilled Desiree’s name and Doreen didn’t notice.]

2 Kate Martin February 19, 2015 at 8:36 AM

Just to clarify. The funds that would have be used to purchase a Historic Preservation Restriction from Mr. Delli Priscoli are earmarked for Community Preservation Projects only, so those funds could not have been used on roads, transfer station, police, fire, schools, etc.

If you have questions about how CPC funds work, or how Historic Preservations Restriction work, please feel free to contact me, or a member of the CPC.

3 Life Long Resident February 18, 2015 at 1:51 PM

It is ultimately sad that there are Southborough residents who do not take interest in the charm and character of our town. The Burnett House is one of the landmarks that separates our community from neighboring towns and preserves our property values. How very short-sighted!!!!

4 Doreen A February 18, 2015 at 5:14 PM

Life Long Resident,
I, too, am a life long resident. I’ve been on the same street for almost 59 years, my father for 80 years, and my grandparents since the 1920’s. I have a lot of history in this town since my grandparents owned Woodland Dairy until their land was taken by eminent domain to build the Massachusetts Turnpike causing them to lose their livelihood. Who wanted to save my family’s farm? Who was giving away money to help my family? Nobody was offering us a conservation restriction to protect the 20 or so remaining acres. Instead, some of it turned to wetlands. Other pieces were used to build family homes. You see, things change. Land gets developed. New people move into Town. Small towns grow. This is all progress. We can’t turn back time. We have to concentrate on moving forward. Hopefully the great people of Southboro will continue to make good decisions for the Town we both grew up in.

5 Kate Martin February 19, 2015 at 10:03 AM

Doreen –

Your story makes me so sad. It was completely wrong that your family’s farm was taken and replaced with something so ugly as a highway. It beaks my heart to think of that such a beautiful piece of Southborough’s history was lost.

Communities should be preserving, protecting and saving the things that make it unique, like your family’s farm, not stepping aside to let the paving trucks through. I wish people had stood up and fought for your farm, like people are now fighting for the Burnett house.

But two wrongs don’t make a right. Since then, Historic Preservation Restrictions have become widely used to save properties from the wrecking ball. People have become more aware of the peril that their local histories are now in. We now have organizations, like the CPC that fund these goals.

I wish we had these mechanism for preservation back then, but it is the sorrow of those past losses that make protecting what is left of our history so important.If you have any old pictures, or stories from your family’s farm, I would love to hear or see them. I am a young resident in the town, so I never got to see it before it was destroyed.

6 Christa Brady February 19, 2015 at 3:39 PM


I also am sorry and saddened for your family’s loss. Nothing strikes quite so deep as the loss of livelihood not to mention a home and all the memories associated with it.

People may or may not know that the Boston Water Authority also had planned to seize almost the entirety of Deerfoot Farm, the single largest employer in Southborough at that time. Joseph Burnett fought them and managed to scale their seizure by eminent domain down to 20 acres. In so doing, he saved the livelihoods of countless other Southborough citizens.

If you stand at the intersection of Main Street and Route 85, you see the gifts and legacy of Joseph Burnett everywhere you look. He founded St. Mark’s. He granted the land upon which our Library stands. His daughter Louise and her husband gifted the land and current Community House to the Southborough Village Society.

That’s a legacy worth protecting in my opinion – for ourselves and for future generations.

As the property owner, Mr. Delli Priscolli has the right to demolish Joseph Burnett’s home and to subdivide the property just as the Boston Water Authority had the right to seize land by eminent domain for its reservoir all those years ago. The reservoir may have been progress for “the thirsty city of Boston,” but it meant significant loss in the lives of many Southborough families such as yours, Doreen. Demolition and subdivision at 84 Main Street would be a tremendous loss for our community.

We can’t turn back time, and regret goes only one way. We can do better when we know better, though. Some things are sacred.

With the restriction off the table, I would still prefer to collaborate with the owner to identify ALL the possibilities that might both ensure the preservation of the Burnett House and protect Mr. Delli Priscoli’s rights as a property owner.

Progress would be agreeing upon a solution for the highest good of all concerned.

7 Hewitt Heiserman February 18, 2015 at 2:23 PM

Hi [Doreen A] –

Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds were to fund purchase of the Burnett-Garfield preservation restriction.

By law, CPA funds are restricted in their use. So while we all may have lots of good ideas for how to spend this money, CPA funds must meet one of three tests: 1) open space, 2) historic renovation, and 3) community housing.

Thus, CPA funds cannot pay for an extended day program for kindergarten, buy a new fire truck, build a new police station, renovate the library, re-roof Town Hall, or acquire a sidewalk snow blower.

In other words, investing in our Town’s aesthetic infrastructure (e.g., 84 Main Street) does not come at the expense of physical infrastructure upgrades and improvements.

To learn more, visit

Thanks to our selectmen Paul Cimino and John Rooney, as well as many other officials and private citizens, for working hard to try to permanently protect a valuable part of Southborough’s heritage and viewscape.

8 Doreen A February 18, 2015 at 4:44 PM

Hi Hewett,

I am well aware CPA funds were going to be used for this “Burnett Deal.” I’m equally aware of what specifies usage of those funds. The bigger issue that I was trying to convey, and I have in other posts on this subject, is we should not be using our tax dollars (CPA funds come from our property taxes) to fund private land owner’s expenses. We are in the midst of looking at our Town facilities. The Selectmen are putting a committee together as we speak. What is it going to cost to maintain our older buildings in Town if we in fact keep them? Couldn’t CPA funds go to rehabbing our own historical properties – South Union, Fayville Village Hall, Town House, the Police Station, etc.? I’m just throwing this out there. I’m not saying we should even keep these buildings. Let’s focus on the properties we have and not invest in others that may be potential money pits.

9 Al Hamilton February 18, 2015 at 5:33 PM

While you are technically correct, the vast majority of CPA funds now come out of our property taxes. This is a far cry from the dollar for dollar match that was the assumption when we voted the CPA in. As such, it is a perfectly reasonable assertion to suggest that a taxpayer would rather these local tax funds funds go towards schools or some other priority. This is a choice we have, we could drop the CPA and instead add the 1% to our general fund (this would probably require an override).

There is nothing sacred about the CPA. TM and the Voters could reassign the monies we pay to other higher priorities if they saw fit. I admit this is unlikely but it is a choice we have.

10 Louise Barron February 18, 2015 at 8:04 PM

The deal collapsed. Let the house collapse. We DON’T HAVE ANY money in this town for frivolity. Again, we need sidewalk plows.

11 Kate Martin February 19, 2015 at 9:28 AM

Again to quickly clarify:

The funds that would have be used to purchase a Historic Preservation Restriction from Mr. Delli Priscoli are earmarked for Community Preservation Projects only, so those funds could not have been used on, for example, sidewalk plows.

Also we do have enough in money in the CPC to cover the costs associated with purchasing this Historic Preservation restriction. There was a very helpful presentation by the CPC in December that described the funds as they currently stand, how those funds could be used, and where they came from. (Some of our current funds came from the state of Massachusetts matching, so it is not all town tax payer money.)

If you have questions about how CPC funds work, or how Historic Preservations Restriction work, please feel free to contact me, or a member of the CPC.

Just as a personal opinion: History lost is lost forever. Southborough has already let enough of its character and distinction fall away. We could be a town of distinction if we did more to protect what makes us unique. If we fail to do protect our history and our heritage, we will become another drive-through town between Worcester and Boston.

12 Al Hamilton February 19, 2015 at 12:58 PM

Apparently we do not have enough funds to purchase a historic preservation restriction, at least one that is acceptable to the current owner of the property. This is not a unilateral decision. The party on the other side has a vote on whether we have the required funds or not.

13 Kate Martin February 19, 2015 at 4:51 PM

To clarify : The owner felt that a Historic Preservation Restriction would be too restricting, not that we do not have sufficient funds.

The CPC gave a very helpful presentation in December that thoroughly explained the available funding and how those funds could be used. If you have further questions, that may be a very useful resource. The funds could have been used for a purchase of this nature, and could have been adequate for such a purchase, should the town have voted to pursue this project.

14 Al Hamilton February 19, 2015 at 5:25 PM

Presumably, more funds would have overcome that objection.

15 Former Townie February 19, 2015 at 6:20 AM

Sorry Doreen A, but I disagree. I feel that the history of the town should be TREASURED and preserved. We are talking about a the former home of a very influential resident who had contributed to Southborough in so many ways. I don’t think that ripping down his house and building condos or additional housing is a very good way to preserve this treasure of a building. Just my thoughts.

16 Al Hamilton February 19, 2015 at 9:10 AM

The building is private property. It’s fate is in the hands of the person who paid good money for it and now owns it. We tried to make a preservation deal and it fell through.

I am going to give the owner the benefit of the doubt since he went to the time and expense of negotiating with the Selectmen that he did so in good faith and tried to make a deal that worked for him. In the end both sides appear not to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.

What the owner now does with the property is up to him, subject to the property development rules that apply to all of us.

If you want to preserve the building make the owner an offer.

17 Christa Brady February 19, 2015 at 3:56 PM

You are correct. And, while many of us aren’t in the position to make Mr. Delli Priscoli a personal offer, there are definitely individuals and groups out there who can!

The Friends of the Burnett-Garfield House intend to find them. Suggestions and leads may be e-mailed to savetheburnetthouse@gmail.com.

18 Barbara Connors February 19, 2015 at 9:47 AM

Well said former townie. Once it is gone it will never be recaptured. We have to think beyond today but about Southborough in the future. Keep it’s specialness!!

19 Life Long Resident - Andrea Thomas February 19, 2015 at 9:22 AM

Hi Doreen,

Thanks for your response. How wonderful that your family has been part of the community for such a length of time. I am a 4th generation homeowner on the north side of town.

Please understand that at 29 years of age, I am quite comfortable with change and progress, however remain steadfast in my belief that this landmark should be preserved. Again, it is my belief that my property values are directly tied with the preservation of the charm and character of the town.

It is my hope that all residents who have not had an opportunity to educate themselves on this issue refer to Mr. Heiserman’s synopsis.

Andrea Thomas

20 Kate Martin February 19, 2015 at 9:46 AM

History lost is lost forever. Southborough has already let enough of its character and distinction fall away. We could be a town of distinction if we did more to protect what makes us unique. If we fail to protect our history and our heritage, we will become another drive-through town between Worcester and Boston, and we will fail our children and the generations that follow us.

Also if you think the economics on it trumps the moral arguments, then consider this: towns that do preserve their historic character grow economically, and see returns on their spending in increased tax revenue. Property value is much higher in towns that practice historic preservation, therefore the town yields higher property taxes, and the residents see increases in the worth of their property. Towns that practice preservation also see higher value commercial businesses which also translates into higher tax revenue. This has been studied in detail, and there are countless case studies proving this point. Towns like Concord, Lexington, Sudbury, Weston, and Lincoln just stared sooner than we did. It is not too late for us to reap the same benefits that they have from preservation, both morally and economically.

-Lifelong Southborough resident, St. Mark’s Alumna, historic residential architect

21 Allan Bezanson February 19, 2015 at 1:26 PM

The Question Man

Years ago there was a popular radio program called “The Answer Man” on Sunday nights. Listeners sent in questions to be answered over the air. In my family all of us were avid fans. Later, the radio comedians, Bob and Ray, did a take-off called “The Question Man.” First, one would recite an answer. Then the other would make up a question to match the answer. It was a hoot.

At times I have heard answers around town to a question that was never to be asked. Answers like “I am opposed to using town funds to help Mr. JDP fix up that house.” Perfectly understandable. However, from what I know, the actual question was to be more like “Do you or do you not favor purchasing a Historic Preservation Restriction (HPR) on the property.” In earlier comments Kate Martin has offered to make clear just what a HPR entails.

I would like to express my appreciation to our selectmen Paul Cimino and John Rooney and to Jon Delli Priscolli for the time and effort they put into this negotiation. In my view they are all making a sincere effort to be responsible custodians of the past, and deserve our gratitude.

22 Al Hamilton February 19, 2015 at 4:04 PM

If we are not able to preserve the house by a historic preservation restriction let me suggest a way that those that want to preserve the house could proceed.

Gather the required signatures to get on the ATM (10) or Special Town Meeting (I think it is about 150) with the following.

1. An article accepting the land on behalf of the town pending a successful negotiation by the BOS to purchase the property or the by eminent domain taking.(2/3 vote is probably required).

2. An article authorizing the borrowing of up to $2,000,000 for the purchase or taking of the property (2/3 vote and majority at the polls)

I believe that the BOS also has an independent veto but if 2/3 of Town meeting and the voters say they want something I suspect they will listen.

That is a way to get what you want and treat the property owner fairly.

For the record, I think this is a terrible idea and will vote no.

23 concerned_resident February 22, 2015 at 10:46 AM

Hey Al,

You always offer sharp, concise opinions on key topics. I often but not always agree with your stance, but like your definitive constructive comments.

Now, let’s pull on Al’s proposal to see where it can be taken and then crystallize the nub of the matter: what is more important now and well into the future: Our present needs or our wants (maintain our identity as a distinctive New England town). In other words, when does a “luxury” in the short term become a need that pays dividends in the long term (if at all). Thats what we are talking about.

First, if we beg (bake sales, etc), borrow (from current Dept budgets) and steal?(from the next generation … committing bond $$ payments), would it translate into any REAL quantifiable financial benefit to the town? If we buy it, what business model can be used to at least break even or not loose too much $$ in the ‘investment’? A bed ‘n breakfast? Not, feasible. Town administrative use… too expensive. A museum? would work? what?

Second, if we concede that the property use cannot generate nearly enough income to cover the bond, then what is the ‘opportunity cost’ to pouring $2MM over say 20 years (bond period)? Cuts in public works? trimming school investments, etc. These are expenses that do not yield clear benefits over the long term (just like paying someone to mow your lawn each summer. Next year the lawn still needs attention).

We dont have unlimited tax revenue (as our BOS and planning professionals know quite well) and so what other capital improvement project gets bumped from the priority list to accommodate the Burnett House? New Fire Dept facility? Probably not…. fires happen. New Police Facility … maybe…. unless we experience a ‘crime spree’ that demands we have more holding cells. New Town Admin Facility? No, no and no. So pick your ‘pet’ capital improvement project and see if it is THE one that we cant float bonds for because we are already over extended.

Todays ‘needs’ vs. tomorrow’s town character “want transforms into a core need”?

you decide.

(For me, i say bite the bullet, float bonds, find some ways to extract some income to defray the bond costs, and amoritize the expense over the next five generations…. our legacy to the future generations is worth our sacrifice today)

24 Frank Crowell February 22, 2015 at 6:40 PM

“trimming school investments…” – you must be joking. This will never happen.

“…..extract some income to defray the bond costs…” = increase taxes

I hate to see a historic building disappear as well, but as far as this taxpayer is concerned, not one thin dime towards this project by the town unless we off load other buildings, close under utilzed schools and have a complete set of plans for all current/future town buildings. There was a time we could have done this. That time has past. Time to start voting no a few wants when there are now new needs.

25 Mark Fox February 19, 2015 at 8:35 PM


I think maintaining focus on an historic preservation restriction with a new owner will be more productive for those who want to preserve the house and ultimately better for the town in the long term. The town would have a chance to preserve the house using funds specified for that very purpose yet also avoid taking on the responsibilty and expense for long term maintenance.

26 Allan Bezanson February 20, 2015 at 6:28 AM

Sunrise on 84 Main, January 25, 2015. Take some time folks, and educate yourselves about its inhabitants and their contributions to Southborough.

27 John boy February 27, 2015 at 7:28 AM

We have beautiful external pictures of th house. It may help people appreciate the property if there were pictures of the interior which is equally historic.

28 beth February 27, 2015 at 8:41 AM

I shared pics from before any renovation work was done in July: http://www.mysouthborough.com/2014/07/19/garfield-house-photo-gallery/

There’s also a video giving an updated view of the interior from the fall: http://www.mysouthborough.com/tag/garfield-burnett-house/

29 beth February 27, 2015 at 8:42 AM

To clarify – July is when I shared old pictures, not when renovation work was done.

30 Deborah Costine February 28, 2015 at 1:42 PM

Hi John boy, thank you for the offer of photos! I think the friends of the Burnett Garfield House would love to see them. Could you possibly connect with our group via savetheburnetthouse@gmail.com? Also we have a Facebook page on which we have been posting both old and new images – https://www.facebook.com/pages/Friends-of-Burnett-Garfield-House/835233099853364 Thanks so much for your interest!

31 John boy February 27, 2015 at 7:29 AM

Where is Timmy Barton the caretaker of the estate?

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