In split vote, Selectmen reject asking voters about Right of First Refusal on 135 Deerfoot

by beth on November 13, 2017

Post image for In split vote, Selectmen reject asking voters about Right of First Refusal on 135 Deerfoot

Above: Some readers may be relieved that there won’t be a Special Town Meeting this fall. But others are upset that we’ll likely be saying goodbye to another historic home and won’t have a say in what happens to more open land being sold to a developer. (image left from realtor.com, right from Google Maps)

Last Wednesday, the Board of Selectmen opted not to act on the Town’s Right of First Refusal for a Chapter 61A property at 135 Deerfoot Road. The board voted 3-2 to reject bringing an article to Special Town Meeting voters.

No project supporters spoke at the most recent meeting on the topic. But following the decision, the Southborough Historical Society has been decrying the board’s call. And SHS’ president says they are working on a plan to be better prepared for future opportunities.

In past meetings, proponents urged allowing voters to decide whether to use Community Preservation Act Funds and what to do with the land. In October meeting, Chair Dan Kolenda countered that voters elected selectmen to make decisions about what is best for the Town.

At the time, Kolenda’s effort to quash the project was overruled by fellow members. They voted to give proponents more time to work up an article.

On Wednesday, Town Counsel summarized a property inspection. New details on potential liabilities and expenses acted as a nail in the project coffin.

Selectmen learned about two underground tanks, asbestos in pipe wrappings, and possible old farm dumps that may contain toxic pesticides from old orchard farming techniques*. The information added to the board members’ concerns about what the Town would be undertaking if it purchased the property.

Despite the report, two members supported letting voters decide. But the new details were enough to secure two more no votes. 

Member Brian Shea had already leaned against the project. He told the public that he also learned in their October 27th morning meeting that the Town “would be looking at a 20 year ownership” of the parcel. Expenses to the Town would include Facilities maintenance of the buildings and an inground pool on site.

Like Kolenda, Shea opined that buying a new parcel could jeopardize the preservation of St. Mark’s Golf Course supported by voters in the spring. Shea said it could distract from the focus and use CPA funds that might be needed to update and/or beautify the course.

Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf previously expressed some interest in bringing a project to voters. But she also made clear she had many concerns that would need to be addressed before she could support that. Liabilities in maintaining the historic home, especially if they failed to sell it off, was one of the red flags she had raised. Last week, she repeated her belief that it would be a mistake to proceed without an appraisal of the property.

In the minority were members Lisa Braccio and newly elected Brian Shifrin. Braccio said she struggled with the decision and had a lot of unanswered questions. But she always errs with letting voters decide how to spend the CPA money they paid into. Southborough Wicked Local covered Shifrin’s position:

“Given the size of the property and the input from all of the volunteer boards that we have that have provided input to selectmen, I’d still be in favor of it going to a town vote,” he said.

He said selectmen historically vote against bringing agricultural land to Town Meeting. He cited reports that many new homes cost the town more in services, than they bring in taxes.

“This is a huge problem for Southborough because the development of these 61A parcels increases the taxes for all residents and degrades the quality of life for all the citizens of Southborough,” he said.

Following the meeting, SHS President Michael Weishan derided the majority voters on the society’s blog:

Not only have these three decided of their own volition to doom one of the last remaining historic farm properties in town, but in a single vote they have raised our taxes, crowded our classrooms, and increased infrastructure congestion.

Town Administrator Mark Purple forwarded Weishan a copy of the Building Inspector’s report on the historic home. Weishan copied me on his emailed response:

Thank you for forwarding the report, though I was already aware of it.

Just so that the members of the Board of Selectmen fully understand, everyone involved in this effort knew that the Moses and Elizabeth Fay House at 135 Deerfoot needed a considerable amount of work. This is typical of every old house of this age, and in fact, my own house at 189 Cordaville had many of these same problems when I bought it in 1992. Fixing issues like these is what historic restoration and preservation is all about. There is nothing in this report that would have deterred a determined old-house lover, especially given the expansive nature of the property. Nor does it address the main issue that the development of this property will not only destroy the historic home and barn, but degrade the quality of life for everyone in Southborough.

The fact of the matter is, and remains, that the voters of Southborough should have had the opportunity to hear various solutions to preserve this property, one of which might have been as simple as buying the property, placing a preservation restriction on it and the land, and putting it back on the market at a reasonable price. Whatever the cost difference, the Town would have come out ahead in the end as it is well documented that development of these 61A open space parcels only increases property taxes for the rest of us, floods schools, and stresses already overburdened infrastructure. Last night’s decision only kicked the eventual cost-can down the road to the current Board’s successors, and in the process, doomed an invaluable piece of Southborough history.

I would respectfully suggest to the Board of Selectmen that they start listening to their own Town Boards, Committees and Commissions who in this case without exception advised them to place this issue in front of the voters for all the reasons outlined above. I think certain members of the Board of Selectmen might be surprised to learn that people in this Town will actually choose to pay to preserve what remains of our open space and historic architecture, as opposed to pay for future costly remediations like new schools, roads and other services after all our historic buildings and open space have vanished.

To this end, it is our intention to place a measure on this spring’s Town meeting, either via the Historical Commission or Citizen’s Petition, to educate the citizenry of Southborough about how we all lose when developers win on these 61A parcels, and gauge the voters’ support for preservation measures as a guide to future Board of Selectmen decisions.

*There were no firm details on liabilities and related costs. Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano explained that asbestos materials found in wraps around pipes in the basement are common for houses of that age. But he also indicated that the tanks were the biggest concern. He didn’t have any ballpark figures. But he pointed out that tanks with liquid aren’t just issues as having potentially leaked. There is risk from spills that can happen in process of removing the tanks.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 em November 13, 2017 at 9:10 PM

Good.

Yes, we elected them to do a job, which means making decisions on our behalf from time to time. We did not need to waste 3+ hours of a weeknight to listen to power point slides and to the same people get up to speak at a microphone over and over again. Thank you, Selectman Kolenda, Selectman Shea, and Selectwoman Phaneuf, for saving our time on this one. The town does not need this headache of a project with little return, and we certainly do not need yet another Special Town Meeting to hash it out.

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2 Sara November 14, 2017 at 11:15 AM

I really wish the town could have voted on this. Thank you, Lisa Braccio and Brian Shifrin.

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3 Eileen November 14, 2017 at 2:43 PM

This seems like a situation where it would have been nice if the town could have voted.

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4 concerned_resident November 14, 2017 at 10:44 PM

Dear Mr. Kolenda, Mr. Shea and Ms. Phaneuf,

How tone deaf can you be? The array of town boards including Planning Bd. recommend that this particular matter be brought to a vote at the next town meeting, and you deny this extraordinarily common sense approach. Nope, the choice is obvious, the best choice is clear. No need to pause and let residents decide whether we should have a say in the matter, no sir. We’ve got plenty of other contiguous 27 acres parcels of open land coming onto the market that we can bid on in the future. And everyone would agree that what the town desperately needs is the construction of six more homes. This is PRECISELY why many smart, knowledgeable and civically inclined private citizens decide NOT to volunteer for Advisory Committees in town. Why bother?

One could respond by saying, ‘well, the need for at least preserving open space via development restrictions is already clearly laid out in the Southborough Town Master Plan of 2008. Section 5 – Open Space and Recreation, subsection entitled” Southborough’s Protection Efforts” states

Southborough has worked to protect its natural resources through conservation restrictions, land acquisition, and zoning initiatives. Perhaps most important, the Town has supported the purchase of key open space parcels. The recent adoption of the Community Preservation Act (CPA) will allow the Town to allocate money for the purchase and protection of key open space resources. Decisions on how the CPA money is used will be directed by the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) in conjunction with other Town boards, commissions, and committees. The ultimate decision on how the money is allocated rests with the Town Meeting.
https://www.southboroughtown.com/sites/southboroughma/files/uploads/open_space_and_recreation.pdf

Your actions directly violate the letter and spirit of the plan that we rely upon to guide big decisions that impact the town for generations to come. (We’re not talking about raising Transfer Station fees here, you know. This decision is kind of important, and should go to the Town Meeting to decide.

As for Mr. Shea, your statement that “The town made a significant investment in the No. 1 identified recreational parcel in town with the golf course,” Shea said. “I think that we need to focus on that. I think we are still a long way away from knowing exactly what we need to do there.” How can we be a long way away from knowing what we need to do? 1. Its a golf course. Let’s play golf! 2. The transaction is over. The “long way away” period of time was a year ago when deliberations to ‘go/no go’ was underway. 3. We can walk AND chew gum at the same time. The chewing gum part of this decision is putting it in the hands of towns people. Why is this hard to see.

Personally if the property is to be developed, i would encourage that the six units be mandated to be clustered so that most of the 27 acres is kept open AND the owner and developer are able to exercise their property rights as well. .

p.s. Forget about crafting a revised 2018-2028 Master Plan. I’m a fan of nonfiction myself.

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5 Rose Mauro November 15, 2017 at 8:40 PM

Hello Beth,

I, too, would have liked to have seen this go before the voters. However, I don’t think this decision would be as much of a slam-dunk as advocates are implying. Southborough has a high bond rating (see https://www.southboroughtown.com/about-southborough/pages/demographics-cont) and intuitively that doesn’t seem compatible with the proposition that we lose a lot of money on the average property. That’s what Brian Shifrin and Michael Weishan claim, and it seems to be based on a unnamed report from “the State of Massachusetts” that says that “a typical 3-4 bedroom home will have 1.9 school-age children in residence throughout the life of the home.”
http://southboroughhistory.org/?p=1834

“Throughout the life of the home” means that **at any point in time**, there are 1.9 school-age children in every home of this size. But that can’t be the case. Check the first page I have linked, and it reports 2,835 single-family parcels in town. You can also go to the assessor’s database at http://southborough.patriotproperties.com/default.asp and search by number of bedrooms. I found 54 pages with 50 records, or about 2,700 3-4 bedroom homes. Then go to http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/statereport/schoolattendingchildren.aspx. You’ll see that we have 2,145 primary and secondary school students, 1,897 in public schools.

Even if we assume that all of those students could potentially be in public school, and that every one of them lives in one of the 2,700 3-4 bedroom homes, you get only 2145/2700 or about 0.8 children per home. At $17,763 per student, each house needs to generate not $33,750 but $14,210 for the town to break even on the additional student. That would be generated by an assessed value of $888,000, which may be in line with other new construction homes here. That is not even getting into moral questions of our responsibility to care for the next generation!

Note that if my analysis is correct, it shows that there is no clear financial gain purely from developing vs. not developing, and that the choice would depend upon other factors like those cited above (value of historic preservation, environmental factors, condition of the property, potential liabilities, other town commitments, and so forth).

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6 Michael Weishan November 16, 2017 at 5:48 PM

Hi Rose,
I understand that figures my differ, but even under your scenario, we lose money on new construction. The number of houses in Southborough assessed (not valued) at 800K or above is relatively small vs the total, so even with 1 student per household and school costs north of 17K, the average house in Southborough costs the town more than it generates in taxes. And as you note, there is degradation to the quality of life in Southborough through loss of historic fabric, open space etc. This is something that we will be paying close attention to as we approach Town Meeting as we really feel this is a discussion that needs to happen.

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7 YY November 16, 2017 at 11:04 PM

The vast majority of those 50 some odd pages of properties have assessed values much less than $888,000 so very doubtful these would have assessed values near that. Also education cost, while the easiest to see and do some estimates around, is only ~55% of the FY2018 expenses.

People move around all the time and I vaguely recall hearing somewhere on order of 10 years of staying put so averaging 0.8 children/student in system over life of house makes sense to me. I think the way you are calculating your number captures that (some families currently don’t have children in school system but they could move and new family move in with children that will use school system).

So overall, even with this calculation, I think the net effect of skipping right of first refusal is an increase in property taxes down the line. Also this seems like a “best case” for letting it be developed so that town gets more income side of the argument.

More important to me is fact various town entities recommended putting it in front of voters and this seem to have the potential to address various town needs.

If BOS wanted appraised value, it was up to them to go and hire someone (and CPC offered $8000)! Also I feel like the golf course is a red herring since how much could realistically come from CPC funds? When we were sold on buying the golf course/public safety complex, shouldn’t all this have been factored in?

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8 Rose Mauro November 16, 2017 at 9:14 PM

Michael, thank you for your advocacy on this issue! One has to appreciate the craftsmanship that’s gone into many of these older houses. We also benefit from exposure to a built environment before the automobile — it promotes physical health, mental health, a sense of community, and an appreciation of nature.

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