Golf Course & Public Safety Building: St. Mark’s and selectmen say they won’t renegotiate, debate over building budget, and much more

by beth on February 10, 2017

Post image for Golf Course & Public Safety Building: St. Mark’s and selectmen say they won’t renegotiate, debate over building budget, and much more

Above: The 60 acre golf course at the heart of debate represents a significant parcel of Southborough land (image from Town GIS map)

This week, St. Mark’s School issued a letter intended to rebut claims by residents seeking to “Save Our Heritage”. If articles supporting the golf course land deal (which sites the Public Safety Building on the parcel) fall through, the school says it will pursue selling the land privately. That means that the Town would have to bid against developers.

In addition, the Town made clear on Tuesday night that any alternative plans for new safety facilities would cost the Town substantially more, and not provide the benefit of protecting the land. And officials say it is very unlikely that Town voters would be willing to purchase the parcel for conservation at open market rate.

As the March 8th Special Town Meeting approaches, meetings and debate around the main focus of the meeting continue to heat up.

Most people who weigh in on the issues agree on two principals:

  • they don’t want the golf course sold to developers
  • they believe that something needs to be done about the inadequate facilities for police and fire departments*

And yet, there is a lot of disagreement on what needs to be done. (Which means there’s a lot of information to share. So, settle in. This story’s a long one!)

Proponents of Article 3 seek to save the golf course alongside a public safety building. It would conserve the land with the purpose of saving the course. But it wouldn’t dictate maintaining a golf course in perpetuity. (It even intentionally allows selectmen to determine how permanent or temporary a Conservation Restriction to place.)

The proponents are asking the Town to shift the building a little and make efforts to preserve as much of the course as possible. They presented (and supported other) possible parking and driveway changes that would help.

To make their project work, they are asking for voters to Support Article 1.

A letter asking voters to reject Article 1 was submitted to the blog this week by Public Safety Committee member Al Hamilton. He argued that the current schematic for the building is excessive in scale and cost.

His letter and public comments seem to be an effort to pressure the Town to lower the building costs. (He also has commented in favor of reducing the footprint in support of preserving more of the golf course.)

On Monday night, Hamilton moved to support a $21M budget, $150K above the original budget. But he wouldn’t support the revised cost-out of $22,629,500. Yet, he still advocates that new stations are necessary and that a combined building on the site is preferable and lower in cost to any alternatives.

The other five members of the Public Safety Study Committee overruled Hamilton’s position.They worried that nickel and diming the project could result in a building that doesn’t meet long term needs, lowering the budget could require them to return to voters for more money, and some of his recommended savings could actually increase costs. Plus they argued that some purported excesses are just misunderstood.** 

To contain costs, the committee recommended that the Town approve a Building Committee to oversee the final design, construction and spending. Chair Jason Malinowski claimed that many Towns have ended up spending “7 figures” less than budgeted based on proper oversight.

Tuesday night, Selectmen supported the committee’s stance. But they did ask them to continue efforts to lower the costs before the March meeting. They also asked them to confirm that Article 3 proponents’ plan to set the building further back can work.

Other opponents of Article 1 are asking voters to reject it in favor of Article 4. They argue that the land should be saved in its entirety. They believe that a public building, or two stations, can be sited elsewhere. It’s a claim that selectmen and the safety committee continually refute.

The Town doesn’t own any other parcels that work for a combined building.*** And separate buildings are estimated to cost $2M more to build. (That’s not including the costs of going back to the drawing board and more inflation as the project gets pushed further out.)

Article 4 asks voters to push selectmen to renegotiate for the land with a full Conservation Restriction. Much of their case is to voters is based on distrust of what the Town or future voters will do if the land is purchased. They worry that the Town will develop the land for other municipal buildings.

Helping to make their case for them, Selectman Dan Kolenda said he wanted future voters to be free to decide if they want to build a Community Rec Center, Senior Center, etc.

Kolenda explained he loves Open Space but said not all of the Town can be Open Space. Meanwhile, earlier, Freddie Gillespie (an Article 4 petitioner) pointed out that the land has been a priority Open Space Parcel for years. She said other parcels just keep getting crossed off, lost to developers.

Gillespie said this parcel was identified as the #4 priority for preservation of wildlife habitat in 2007. It is now #1, since the top three are in development.

The Open Space advocate told the public that Article 3 is only Advisory. It can’t force selectmen to conserve the golf course parcel. 

Gillespie acknowledged, the same applies to Article 4. But proponents seem to hope that if selectmen can’t use the parcel for a public safety building, they will have incentive to pursue conservation over development.

Selectmen repeatedly, emphatically told the public that they would NOT renegotiate with St. Mark’s, no matter what voters choose. They consistently defended the stance as based on St. Mark’s disinterest.

They argued that Article 4 petitioners were taking a risky stance. Failure of Article 1 would make the land vulnerable to developers. And they pointed out the enormous amount of land desirable to developers.

st marks golf course parcel (cropped from SAM video)The St. Mark’s Golf Course Master Plan Committee developed a map to identify restrictions to buildings – wetlands, slopes, etc. They found that up to 50 acres could be developed. But a member cautioned against using that figure – some of it might be restricted by other impediments not yet determined. (Click on thumbnail right. The white areas indicate land that are likely developable.)

The committee and selectmen stressed that the main access points for developable land would be on Latisquama Road.

And selectmen debunked an opponent myth. The Town can not turn around and sell the additional land to a developer in the future. Resale is prohibited by the land purchase agreement.

On Tuesday night, Selectmen voted to oppose Article 4. But the board held off on taking an official position on Article 3.

Selectmen John Rooney and Paul Cimino opined that if preserving the course can be done without negatively impacting the public safety building, they will support it. Their support was based on increased odds of passing Article 1 if they can also preserve the course.

Kolenda rebutted that they may be surprised about the number of residents who would prefer the Town to use the land for other purposes. He said he would oppose Article 3.

Click here for the letter issued by St. Mark’s School.

Click here for video of the Public Safety Study Committee’s public forum at the Library to make their case. (It pre-dates the newest cost estimates and new proposals on the driveway and parking, but most else should still apply.)

Click here for the Police Dept’s powerpoint presentation to demonstrate their need for a new facility.

Click here for the most recent schematic design of the proposed complex. (January 30th versions.)

For past coverage on the golf course, click here. For past coverage on the public safety building, click here.

*Although, despite public statements made by many in meetings, I keep hearing and seeing comments that belie that there is consensus on need for new emergency stations.

Some people won’t say it in publicly on the record, but claim behind the scenes that the need for a new fire station is overblown. Others are just unsure. And most people who talk to me or ask me about it are very skeptical of the need to spend $20M or more on the building.

Which means that the town and public safety departments still have work to do if they want people to “come out to support” police and firefighters.

**One purported excess of the current design is “three kitchens”. But committee members justify, only one is a full kitchen on the second floor – for firefighters on 24 hour shifts (plus could be utilized if emergency shelter is required for residents.) The other two are kitchenettes on the first floor. One is in the police department work area. The other is inside the dispatch area – where only one employee is staffed to answer emergency calls.

***All initial design options of a combined building on the existing parcel required additional abutting land. That is what initiated talks with St. Mark’s School. And they are purportedly unwilling to sell that land. The only reason for the proposed deal is that the current parcel (and another) are real estate the school would like to absorb.

If you think I wrote a lot here, you’d be surprised at how much I still left uncovered. If you want to know everything said on Tuesday night, you can watch the video yourself.

1 Mark Fallon February 10, 2017 at 5:15 PM

Great summary of the issues, and I appreciate the links.

2 John Wilson February 10, 2017 at 8:35 PM

For those wanting more information on Article 3 go to http://www.saveourgolfcourse.info

This site has been produced by the “save the golf course work group”

3 Nancy Kolk February 11, 2017 at 10:21 AM

I don’t like that the selectmen get to decide if the conservation restriction is permanent or not. I feel that should be a town meeting decision, and not just by electing or not electing the current BOS.

4 John Smith February 11, 2017 at 12:40 PM

I’m shocked and saddened……their is no current protection of the land in any of the articles (with exception of 4) or the Land Swap Agreement the BOS signed on Friday.

We elected this group (BOS) to defend our core principals…..one of them is preserving open space. THEY SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES!

Once this land is gone it will change the look of our town forever. PLEASE, I beg you all to think about the value of this open space and how it is a part of our History and the Legacy we leave behind to future generations. Challenge our Selectmen to do the right thing.

5 Kevin February 11, 2017 at 2:20 PM

In terms of public safety, can we talk about the town’s ability (or lack there of) to plow our roads?

This is a more pressing issue at this time with 2 more storms coming this week.

6 resident February 13, 2017 at 11:37 AM

The town has never been able to plow our roads effectively. They have proven that over and over. We have the worst streets after a storm.

The strong arming of the BOS over this land deal is reprehensible, and they should be ashamed. We as a town need to VOTE THEM OUT! Bring in new blood and get back on track. They definitely seem to have their own agenda!

7 David Parry February 26, 2017 at 10:30 PM

Municipal golf courses can make considerable net revenue for a town. Golf is a recreational sport enjoyed by men, women, seniors and juniors. In addition, golf courses can provide a beautiful scenic landscape in some instances, especially in our town of Southborough.  

 

Most often Towns will lease out the golf operations to private companies and these companies will pay the town a significant annual sum. The company operating the St Marks Golf Course makes a profit that in turn pays St Marks School $35,000 a year. St Marks has zero costs with no maintenance costs or employees to pay.

 

The fact is 18 hole courses are in decline, and that is largely because they take so long to play. On the other hand, 9 hole courses are on the rise, because the time to play 9 holes is one half, and you can make a choice to continue on for a second round of 9, to make 18 holes, if you have time. Fortunately for Southborough, our course is 9 holes, and it is a good quality 9 hole course (more on that below).

 

The 9 hole course is also a great way to introduce the sport to our youth. The popularity of most junior sports, played by persons between the ages of 6 to 16 are in decline, but golf is one of the exceptions and is on the rise. I will quote from Golf Digest, issue of Nov 2016:

 

“From 2009-2014 the Sports and Fitness Association reported a 9 percent decrease in overall youth sports participation in the United States.  No sport bucked the trend as strongly as golf, whose junior ranks grew by 900,000 in that time.”

 

Here are some trends worth noting:

 

Volley ball declined 22%

Football declined 18%

Track and Field declined 10%

Baseball declined 8 %.

Basketball declined 7%.

Baseball declined 5%.

 

GOLF INCREASED 19%

 

So much for participation.

 

Now let us turn to the issue of whether this course is worth saving. How do we know it is a good quality course? Because Mr Brian Silva, who is a world renowned golf course architect, was so concerned about the potential loss of the course, (which he was very familiar with because he played here in his youth), that he flew up here from Florida, at his own expense, to offer us his advice for free. His motto is “Save The Saint”. He provided expert advice on how to modify the course to allow space for the proposed Public Safety Facility, which is to be sited on a small portion of 5 acres next to Woodward School, where the existing golf club house now sites, today. That will leave leave 55 acres for the golf course. This open space will continue to exist under a Conservation Restriction in perpetuity.

 

Mr Silva’s design criteria have been incorporated into two workable site plans for the modified course, prepared by two separate teams of architects and site planners. Not only that, but the Public Safety Facility Committee is enthusiastic about having a working golf course next to their facility, and they have agreed to shift their facility so that it allows for all 50 parking space needed by golfers in the same northern section, not interfering with the modified golf course. This is proof that the course can be modified and still remain a good quality course that will work very well with a new Public Safety Facility.

 

What is more, one of the two site plans allows for a potential loop road which would eliminate the circular turn-around now used by school busses, so that the busses could enter the loop road from the south, pick up students, and exit at the north end of the loop. This is what the School Committee has wanted for years.

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