Different approaches to saving golf course: Two citizen petition articles (Updated)

by beth on January 19, 2017

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Above: Residents are working to preserve or maintain the integrity of the golf course on Latisquama Road. (photo by Katie Ferguson, posted with permission)

Several residents are working to preserve the St. Mark’s Golf Course. In their efforts, two groups have taken a different approach. Both are being pursued through Citizen Petition Warrant Articles for the Special Town Meeting on March 8th.

Some residents worked on a plan for making minor changes to the golf course that would allow play to continue alongside a new public safety building.  In support of that plan, former selectman David Parry submitted a Citizen’s Petition article. It asks to conserve all of the golf course land, except for the section allotted for the new complex.

According to Southborough Wicked Local, other residents have submitted a petition asking voters to buy the land while preserving the course in its current state. That option wouldn’t allow for the building of a Public Safety Complex or any other municipal buildings on the 60 acres.

The land deal as offered by St. Mark’s School includes them taking over the property where police and fire are currently stationed. The article asks selectmen to renegotiate a deal without the land swap.

Some abutters and golfers are upset at plans that would develop any piece of the land. Now they have been publicly joined by non-abutting proponents of Open Space. SWL quotes Freddie Gillespie:

It is a gateway to town and we feel like having a portion of it developed will take away from the historic landscape and view

SWL also posts that the petition claims the purchase cost would be covered by the golf course’s revenue. FAQ’s on their website saveourgolfcourse.org explain why petitioners think the plan can work:

the architects advising the Public Safety Study Committee, after years of effort and thousands of dollars of expense, determined that the best location for a new complex would be on the site of the current fire and police stations. . .

St. Mark’s School was bequeathed [the golf course] property from the Choate family over 100 years ago and has taken care of it ever since. We believe they can be good partners in this process. We want our town officials to continue positive negotiations with St. Mark’s to acquire the Golf Course for the town— without a land swap.

Meanwhile, residents John Wilson and Andre Fortin publicly presented how small modifications would allow the golf course to operate alongside a Public Safety Building. The presentation was made at last week’s St. Mark’s Golf Course Master Plan Committee Meeting. The costs would purportedly be repaid by user fees within a few years.

Presenters pointed out that advocates for building recreation facilities at the site are ignoring that golf is community recreation. And golf courses are disappearing as owners sell the land for more profitable development.

Wilson said he and Fortin were speaking on behalf of golf course members, including about 15 of them attending. He said they would like to see the course preserved as is. But they researched a viable backup option. Their plan would allow the Public Safety Building while still maintaining the integrity and identity of the course.

As currently planned, a new building would interfere with path of the #1 hole, and the 9th fairway and green. A well known golf course architect Brian Silva helped them work out one potential solution with minor changes and said there may be other possibilities.

As a Southborough native who played his first round on the course, Silva is interested in helping them. Silva purportedly said the course had “real jewels” and he would be proud to include any of the holes in his own “toolbox”.

The group researched costs for the changes, plus a new parking lot, a driveway for golfers. They estimated about $250K. They said that the course would be able to cover that and ongoing operations, though not in the first year.

Wilson said the golf course generates a little over $200K in revenue now. Some commenters wondered if their plan to replace the club house with a trailer (due to space constraints) would turns some golfers away.

Parry’s petition in support of the plan includes the draft explanation:

This Article will place a Conservation Restriction (CR) on all land of St Mark’s Golf Course EXCEPT the small parcel proposed for a Public Safety Facility. The CR will preserve the entire remaining land area as open space, and will allow the golf course to be modified so that it can continue in operation. The Article will be withdrawn if the Selectmen’s Article to purchase the golf course is NOT approved.

Click here for the full article to preserve the golf course alongside a public safety building.

Click here for the SWL post on the other article to preserve the entire 60 acres.

And stay tuned for more news coming soon on the public safety building.

Updated (1/19/17 ): Two items:

I’ve heard debate among residents about the Town’s rights to buy the land through “first right of refusal” if the deal doesn’t go through. Hearing different facts, I asked Town officials for clarification. Assessor Paul Cibelli responded:

If a taxpayer has land enrolled in Chapter 61A or 61B and chooses not to file their annual application (thus removing the property from chapter land designation), pays taxes for one year at the market rate, they can sell it and the Town would lose its right of first refusal. The property could be subject to roll back taxes which has a 5 year look-back and is triggered by a change in use. Roll back taxes are basically the difference between the chapter value and market value of the property.

Now, here is the language from the citizen’s petition article to fully preserve the golf course:

“To see if the Town of Southborough will vote to (state your request), or do or act
Support purchasing approximately 61-acres St Marks’ Golf Course located at 36 Cordaville Road for perpetual preservation of the entire property with no future development allowed and a conservation restriction required on the entire property at time of purchase. To achieve this, the Selectmen shall renegotiate the purchase agreement for the property with no land swap involved, and bring to voters at the 2017 Annual Town Meeting. The Conservation Restriction (CR) purpose shall be to preserve high-quality open space for the benefit of the town, protect historical scenic views and wildlife habitat, while preserving a golf course and passive recreation. Said CR to be developed immediately following Special Town meeting with Selectmen to appoint a Conservation Restriction Development Committee made up of 7 members only, with 1 member representing each of the following constituencies: the Open Space Preservation Commission, Historical Commission, Conservation Commission, Recreation Commission, Planning Board, a Direct Abutter, and a member of the Golf Community. The Selectmen also to work with the Open Space Preservation Commission, Planning Board, and Community Preservation Committee to develop a finance package that includes applying for CPA funding, using Golf Course revenues to offset purchase price, and applying for State grants.

, or do or act anything in relation thereto.”

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Al Hamilton January 19, 2017 at 3:10 PM

While I chair the Public Safety Building Study Committee, the following comments are mine and mine alone and do not reflect the position of the committee.

If for some reason, we are not able to build a Public Safety building on the golf course then our options are extremely limited. The committee evaluated a number of sites for the Public Safety building a summary of which can be found here:

http://www.southboroughtown.com/sites/southboroughma/files/pages/ps_building_site_options.pdf

The only other viable site for a Public Safety Building is the current site augmented by additional land currently owned by St Marks, commonly known as the St. Marks Meadow (site of Heritage day). This was the original recommendation of the PS Building Study Committee. To the best of my knowledge, St. Marks is not interested in selling this property as it is part of their central campus and visual corridor. Acquisition would likely require an eminent domain taking which in turn would be both expensive and lengthy.

Delay would require us to perform significant deferred maintenance on the Police Station and Fire Station. Likely well into 7 figures and would not address the any identified needs, essentially putting lipstick on a pig.

At least 4 different architects have looked at the police station and all have concluded that renovation is not a viable option for meeting our current or projected future needs. There is no reasonable scenario where we can continue over the long run to operate both a police and fire station within the bounds of the current property. We have 7 lbs of real needs and the site is a 5 lb bag.

The only other option is to build a separate Police Station and probably build a Fire Station at some future date. The current estimate is that the combined costs, if built today would be about $2 million more than a combined facility.

A decision not to acquire the parcel at this time or to preclude building a PS building on it has very real and significant costs to our community and to the taxpayer.

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2 Townie January 20, 2017 at 10:42 AM

I was surprised by the recent citizen petition to ask the selectmen to re-enter negotiations with St. Marks with the idea of the golf course purchase only, no land swap. I sat back, scanned over their literature on the reasons as well as read into additional petitions on the table.

I visited the saveourgolfcourse.org website that was set up. What I found was a lack of problem solving and misconceptions. On the main page of the website, the last sentence states:

“We can and should preserve this historic landscape as open space while still meeting the town’s public safety needs.”

Just below is a link that says “READ MORE”. Sadly, the link goes nowhere. I did find in the FAQ’s a “what about the public safety complex” question. It referred to the Feasibility Study that concluded the current site of the police & fire stations was the best location. True, at that time, it was. It was only after the study was concluded and failed attempts to obtain additional land from St Marks that the Golf Course was presented as an option, by St. Marks. Anyone with little to no information about this subject would read the FAQ’s and think the selectmen opted for the golf course plan over the current location, that’s false. The current location expansion was attempted and failed. The failure to obtain addition land at the current location is the reason the golf course was brought to the table. Other than that, the groups website offers no new resolution to a safety complex location.

In addition, the idea of purchasing the land without a swap could create a massive financial risk to the residents. I believe in St. Mark’s eyes, it’s either land swap deal or no deal. In the case of a no deal, the town runs the risk of paying for the land at a higher market price or losing it to a developer. That could mean higher taxes with no new safety complex OR open land developed into houses or another “Park Central”. Not financially responsible or in the best interest of the town.

The concept of operating a golf course while having a new safety complex is actually quite interesting. The only problem I see right now is the safety complex has come in over budget and the committee has been told by the BOS to cut the fat, completely understandable. But the idea of continuing to operate the golf course means more money. The estimated operating cost is $250,000/yr. A new parking lot, possible clubhouse, and what not will increase that number significantly for the first year and possibly second. What’s troubling is the revenue now is a little over $200,000. I’m not a businessman, but commonsense says that’s around $50,000 minimum a year the residence will have to pay for on top of the new safety complex. Not financially responsible and not in the best interest of the town.

What is financially responsible and in the best interest of the town majority? Purchasing this land under the current St. Marks offer and building our needed safety complex. This way our town needs have been satisfied, land has been purchased at a faction of market cost, and we leave the remaining open space undeveloped. In my mind, that will truly “preserve this historic landscape as open space while still meeting the town’s public safety needs”.

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3 David Parry January 21, 2017 at 9:29 PM

Concerning the possibility of modifying the golf course, so that it can continue operating, after the Public Safety Facility is built.

You state “the estimated operating cost is $250,000 / year ” (of a municipal golf course). This is not so. The course will bring in substantial net revenue to the Town ….. whether it is operated by the Town, or leased out to an operator. I will leave the details of the potential revenue to Mr John Wilson’s group to present at future meetings, Feb 7, at a Selectmen meeting.

I think you may be using the figure of $250,000 (which was mentioned at the Jan 11 Master Plan Committee meeting) as a possible construction cost (as opposed to “operating” cost ). The construction cost is necessitated by the disruption to the existing course caused by the Public Safety Facility ….. disrupting part of holes 1 and 9.

A group is now investigating how holes 1 and 9 might be modified, with advice from an expert golf course designer.

This work is related to one of the Citizens Petition Articles, seeking to preserve as open land ALL the remainder (59 acres of 63 acres, which is well over 90% ), and continue the Course in operation, while allowing the new Public Safety Facility to go ahead , with careful landscape screening to protect scenic views.

All of this matter will detailed at a Selectmen meeting on Feb 7.

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4 Townie January 23, 2017 at 10:23 AM

David, that is exactly where I got the figures from. It was the only numbers I could find pertaining to the operations of the golf course. I’m very curious to see what you and the group have come up with for details on a modified course.

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5 John Smith January 20, 2017 at 2:15 PM

I believe that the BOS is responsible for putting the Public Safety Committee / First Responders in this situation and moreover creating the ongoing rifts and factions between good people and town groups.

Ultimately the “deal” should have been contingent upon the citizens of Southborough.

We should have had the option to vote for the additional land for the new complex in its current location (Main Street) as Option 1, to vote for buying the golf course land only as Option 2 and Option 3 for the current deal which is the land swap with Public Safety Complex on the Golf Course (or a combination of options 1 & 2).

Clearly if this was a good deal we wouldn’t have two additional citizen petition warrant articles being added.

What we have now is a bad deal that doesn’t even preserve the land they are claiming as 50% undeveloped. This parcel is going to be chopped up for years to come if the town makes the mistake to approve the article for the current deal on the table. Once this Land is gone its gone for good, don’t destroy something that has been a part of our Heritage.

For those folks who say St. Marks and the BOS wont re-negotiate, grow up, this is a business transaction worth millions and potentially the worse Public Relation decisions of their existence, they have to re-negotiate!

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6 Townie January 20, 2017 at 5:36 PM

John Smith, I agree. I wish there were options to be voted upon by the residents, but that ball was never in the town’s court for that.

Option 1: As Al Hamilton has explained in other posts this option was rejected, but not because the committee wanted to. The committee has already stated this option requires additional land that St. Mark’s refuses to give up. Eminent domain, however, is still possible. That will take a lot of time and financial support to achieve and will most likely tarnish the relationship between St. Marks and the town. Eminent domain needs to be avoided.

Option 2: This has never been an option. It’s is merely a citizen petition that is relying on hopes that St. Marks will re-negotiate with the town to purchase the land without a land swap. There’s very little information to back up this option at this time, just assumptions.

Option 3: This was presented by St. Marks, not the selectmen. From what I have gathered, this was not an easy option to agree on. It took months of negotiating with the St. Marks and the selectmen to come to an agreement that fit the best interest for both sides. I applaud the hard work and dedication the town put in to get this agreement. This is by far the best deal.

Option 1&2 combined: I really do not believe that St. Marks would ever agree on giving the town all that land with nothing in return.

I also agree with your first statement, I don’t put the blame completely on the selectmen. What has caused the friction and rifts? The St. Marks Golf Course Master Plan committee. This committee should have never been formed. This put fears into people that the town wants to build up as much of this property as possible. The main reason this deal is on the table is the need for a small portion of that land for the much needed safety complex. All other departments should have been told to sit down and wait their turn. Those departments have dreams of projects they want to see. What they want is not a necessity at this time.

The selectmen need to step in soon, state option 3 is the only feasible option on the table. This option will knock off the most items on this towns list of needs and wants. What needs to be said though is this purchase is for the safety complex only, and what’s done with the remaining land shall be dealt with after the completion of that project. This will give plenty of time for ideas the be researched and well thought out rather than in only 2 months, and will give the rest of the town time to let the ideas settle in so residents have a good understanding of what they are voting on.

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7 Jonas January 20, 2017 at 3:00 PM

Well thought out and stated. For once, will common sense prevail?

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8 John Smith January 24, 2017 at 7:09 AM

First of all, I appreciate the good dialogue and opinions being stated on this topic.

I feel as though the citizens were told that the BOS went to St. Marks requesting additional land for the current location but we don’t know happened with that request. If the request never took place then St. Marks dictated the discussions making this not a negotiation but more of an ultimatum.If the BOS really cared about St. Marks Golf Course then they wouldn’t have protected it by putting it in a conservation restriction but instead they are entertaining request to develop it for future town needs. So as someone who sees a value in preserving open space I would have rather scene a deal for the additional land at its current location.

The land that is being shown on the Public Safety Committee website as an option under the “Sites Examined” file indicates a large parcel which is almost twice as much as they are currently working with on the St. Marks Golf Course. I hope that wasn’t what the BOS asked from St. Marks for additional land, if so, I could see why they said no way.

Lastly, we are abandoning our Main Street by giving up prime Real Estate with this current deal. The current Police / FD location could be used for so many needs; one being a new Public Safety Complex and the other as a major piece in revitalizing our main street if the Public Safety Complex is relocated somewhere else. If relocated somewhere else we could put some sort of retail, recreation complex, performing arts complex, senior center, all these wonderful uses that are now being proposed to go on the St. Marks Golf Course, it just doesn’t make sense. Not to mention the town has other properties and land we should consider for any future needs before we chop the Golf course up.

As I stated above, the additional land at the existing PD / FD location should be re-negotiated as an option for Town to vote on.

With this proposed deal St. Marks gets a contiguous campus and we get what ever they feel like putting their with no restrictions.

The New Public Safety Complex and the Potential Sale of the St. Marks Golf Course should be considered two separate issues.

I just feel this was a bad deal, we went to them looking for additional land for the current location and now we have this horrible deal that does not protect the St. Marks Golf Course Open Space and gives up our Main Street. Our BOS neglected the charge of Open Space and Recreation for the past 30 Years which was to protect our heritage and that sacred open space if at all possible. We had a chance to do that but the BOS charged a committee to find out what buildings could be placed their.

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9 Al Hamilton January 24, 2017 at 8:53 AM

While I currently chair the PS building Study Committee, the following comments are mine alone and do not reflect the positions or policies of the committee.

I am quite certain that the BOS did approach St. Marks and try to buy additional land next to the fire station. St. Marks response was “It is not for sale”. That is an owners right to say. That land is important to St. Marks as it forms the “visual corridor” to the entrance of the facility. St. Marks also indicated that it wants to expand their central campus not shrink it. So I believe them when they say “Not for sale”.

That leaves eminent domain a lengthy, expensive, and odious process if you believe in property rights.

We do have other options. If we do not build a PS building on the golf course then we could build a Police Station in short order probably on the land behind the recycling center (Middle Road) or Central Street, or some other parcel. We have a lot more flexibility in location of a police station.

That would leave the Fire Station. If the land deal as proposed goes through we will eventually have to pay rent to St. Marks (the new owner of the parcel). The rent would be $10,000 per month. On a strictly commercial basis this is an rate, far below commercial rates so staying on the parcel for some extended time is not a crazy option. Ultimately we do need to build a new station somewhere in the center of town, close to the 85/9 overpass but in the mean time we could get an additional number of years of value out of the existing facility.

The total cost of the 2 facilities would be more than a combined facility but the sequenced timing could spread the costs out over a longer time frame.

If you really believe that town meeting should be given a choice then I suggest you bring a citizens petition to purchase or take by eminent domain the parcel of the meadow the portion of the meadow required. You will probably need a second article to fund the acquisition or taking and legal and transaction fees. I suggest you make it for $2,000,000.

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10 John Smith January 25, 2017 at 8:18 AM

Al….thanks for your feedback, I think it would be great to build the PD in the two areas you recommended above (Middle Road or Central Street). We should try to utilize land we already have if at all possible to save money. However, I understand the value for incorporating the two departments into one new building but that comes with a price (23 Million).

I’m assuming your value of $2 million for additional land includes swing space $ for the the FD and PD if we decide to build at the current main street location but it is still less than the 4.5 Million currently being offered for the land swap.

If the Public Safety Complex remains over budget come February 7th will a decision be made to look at property we already own as you suggested to save save money in the short term or work out another deal that does not include the St. Marks Golf Course?

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11 Al Hamilton January 25, 2017 at 9:24 AM

While I currently chair the PS Building Study Committee the following comments are mine alone and do not reflect the position of the committee.

John

To be clear, I am not advocating building the 2 station solution. I merely want to make sure that folks understand that there are options if the current proposal fails. My intent was to provide information not take a position.

The $2 million was a guess of the total cost of taking the land including litigation. Certainly the property is question is “prime real estate” that any developer would pay top dollar for which is the standard we would be held to.

The Board of Selectmen have stated that they do not want the building to cost over the original estimates which maxed out at $20.85 million. I agree and have told the committee I would oppose any building that cost more than this sum. From a taxpayer perspective this is the most building program we have ever undertaken because, unlike schools the state will not help us pay for this building.

My own, back of the envelope (well back of the spreadsheet really) estimate is that homeowner with a property assessed at $500,000 would see an initial tax increase of about $256 per year ($20.85 million borrowed at 4% for 30 years level funded, $51.30 per $100,000 of assessed value). The land would add another $38 to that total ($4.5 million borrowed, 4%, 20 years level funded, $7.66 per $100,000 assessed value). The land purchase might be partially offset with the use of CPC funds but most of these come out of our local taxes as well.

Beware those that will try to pull the wool over your eyes and tell you that because we are paying off other debt this is not a tax increase. It is and it should be clearly recognized as such.

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