Missing details on the Weishan “hornets nest” (Updated – Again)

by beth on June 13, 2018

[Editor’s Note: Again, I should disclose that I am an abutter to St. Anne’s Church.]

As I posted last week, the Board of Selectmen opted not to renew Historical Commission member Michael Weishan’s term past the expiration of his term (at the end of this month). That story was missing some key details, so I’m following up.

At last week’s meeting, then-Chair Dan Kolenda* stated that actions of the Commission wouldn’t be relitigated – just the tone of communications. But the Historical Commission’s disputes with developer William Poutre over 28 Boston Road were at the heart of the controversial message sent to St. Anne’s Church.

As part of the board’s review, Poutre was invited to speak against Weishan.

I neglected to note that when resident Karen Muggeridge tried to make a comment, Kolenda shut her down. He told the room that the public wasn’t allowed to comment on the board’s votes on appointments. He did allow Joe Hubley to speak as chair of the Historic Commission. According to Weishan, several other people in the room who had come out to support him were upset that they weren’t given the chance.

In Poutre’s statement, he asserted that Weishan accused both himself and St. Anne’s Deacon Paul of lying. The actual email shows that Weishan indicates that he believed that Deacon Paul told him the truth. He follows by seeming to interpret that Poutre had lied to the Deacon.

[Editor’s Note: Poutre contacted me to clarify that it was other communications from Weishan – not shared with the board – that accused Deacon Paul of lying. It wasn’t, as I orginally misunderstood, that email. Since posting this story, I learned that the communication Poutre shared with the board that night was the email from Weishan to the church, and the original email text from a member of the church’s Finance Committee that he was responding to. Those are referred to and linked to below.]

I now have the communication originally cited by Selectman Brian Shea as the reason for not reappointing Weishan. (Click here to read the full email exchanges between Weishan and St. Anne’s. The final message is the one cited.)

Plus, I have some of Shea’s communications on the issue – with Town officials, Poutre, and St. Anne’s. Those communications prompt me to share one more detail I didn’t include last week. Shea told the room that he was a member of St. Anne’s Parish. He followed that he had cleared his ability to participate in the vote by talking with the state Ethics Commission and filing appropriate papers.

That relationship is now especially worth noting, since it led Shea himself to include in an initial email in November 2016 that his response may be “biased”.

You can read those messages in this version of the Town’s response to Weishan’s document request. (I simply edited it to to remove several pages that were completely duplicated on other pages.)

To fully understand the communications, you may want some more context.

The developer is currently clearing land for his plans to build a 6 unit development at 28 Boston Road, which requires razing the original house.

Back in fall 2016, Poutre pulled a demolition permit. That prompted investigation by the Historical Commission under the Demolition Delay Bylaw. Poutre claimed to the commission that the building wasn’t old enough to fall under the bylaw. That was disputed by the Commission which asserted that even if the specific date was uncertain they had information to show that it was older than 1925.

The discussions that followed from there are another matter of dispute between Poutre and the Historical Commission. 

Last week, Poutre told selectmen that he informed the Commission from the outset of plans to preserve the building if it was structurally sound, donate 25% of the property to St. Anne’s, and preserve another 25% as Open Space. The Commission’s minutes from the October 3rd meeting state:

Applicant was asked on three occasions what his plans were for the property; in each instance he replied he had “no plans.”

Less than two weeks later, Poutre went in front of the Planning Board with ANR plans (dated September 27, 2016) to split the property into two lots. The plans included the sliver of land purchased from St. Anne’s Parish that gave Poutre the frontage necessary.

At that meeting, answering a question from the Planning Board, Poutre said he didn’t have “any definitive plans” for the land. Tom Bhisitkul spoke on behalf of St. Anne’s supporting Poutre’s request and stated he had a hand in drafting the deal.

[Editor’s Note: Poutre contacted me to assert that he used the same wording at all of his initial meetings with boards and committees – including the Historical Commission meetings – that he had “no definitive plans”. He clarified that prior to doing a wetlands analysis and going before other Town boards to talk issues through, it isn’t possible to have definitive plans. His purchase of the small piece of frontage from St. Anne’s for $20K was to allow him an insurance policy that he would at least have two lots of land allowing him to recoup his investment.]

According to Weishan, the Commission would never normally contact an abutter. But the Commission was charged with enforcing the Demolition Delay Bylaw adopted by voters. That bylaw requires that the buyer make a “bona fide” effort to find another buyer to preserve the building. And the enabling legislation for the Commission authorizes:

A city or town which accepts this section may establish an historical commission, hereinafter called the commission, for the preservation, protection and development of the historical or archeological assets of such city or town. . .

The commission may hold hearings . . . and may do and perform any and all acts which may be necessary or desirable to carry out the purposes of this section.

Surprised by the ANR, he followed up on what was happening at the site and spoke with Deacon Paul of St. Anne’s Church on the phone. There is no record of that conversation except for Weishan’s follow up email to the Deacon. In it Weishan asks the Deacon to verify or correct his account of their talk. The key portion:

From your account, Mr. Poitre [sic] approached St. Annes immediately after purchasing the property in May or June, and inquired whether the church was willing to sell a sliver of land that would allow for the separation of the existing structure onto a new 25,000 square foot lot. He informed you that he was planning a development on the land, which was going to happen regardless. Either he would demolish the house and build his development, or, if the Archdiocese of Worcester were willing to sell him a sliver of land, he could preserve the structure on the new lot and still do the development behind. As this seemed a reasonable proposition, and mindful of conserving the existing historical structure, this offer was forwarded on to the bishop, approved, and the 94 sq. feet of land was subsequently sold to Mr. Poitre [sic].

My call to you yesterday was the first time you had heard of the potential demolition of the historic house at 28 Boston Road, and that the Church’s motivation in selling the land was to accommodate both the new development as well as the existing structure.

After multiple inquiries, a reply eventually came from the Deacon referring him to a response from Bhistikul. The Finance Committee Member didn’t confirm or deny Weishan’s account of his conversation with the Deacon, or clarify how the deal developed.

Instead, he indicates that the church had “serious reservations” about having their dealings with Poutre be part of the public record. He asks Weishan to respect that request. However, the message also defended Poutre, including:

I do feel the need to address an undercurrent in your email below, which seems to suggest (as, perhaps, your interpretation Deacon Paul’s account), that Mr. Poutre may have acted in a
dishonest manner with respect to the property at 28 Boston Road. That would be an unfortunate, and inaccurate, inference. Mr. Poutre and his family are longstanding and valued parishioners of St. Anne. . .

In his dealings with the Church regarding the 28 Boston Road property, he has been extraordinarily fair and respectful, and has been forthright about his intentions. We would be very disappointed if any representation was made to the Historical Commission (or otherwise) that Mr. Poutre has acted in an unfair or deceptive manner with respect to the Church.

The follow up email from Weishan is the communication that Shea pointed to as unacceptable in tone and the reason for not renewing the Commision member’s term. I’m therefore including it in full:

Dear Tom and Deacon Paul,

I am extremely disappointed to hear that you and the Parish Finance Committee have reservations about clarifying the sale of church land to Mr. Poutre, for as I mentioned to Deacon Paul, the optics of this appear very poor. Though only a tiny sliver of frontage, this transfer directly affects the historic fabric of Southborough and should have been made entirely transparent, especially as to a reasonable person this could easily appear to be an insider using inside information to thwart the zoning laws of Southborough. Is Saint Anne’s in the habit of selling bits of itself for the benefit of its parishioners? And if so, who determines who receives this largesse? You are aware, are you not, that had you not sold the frontage to Mr. Poutre, and had he been unable to demonstrate that there was no other buyer for the property, there would have been no development, period, and the historic home and its original acreage would have remained intact? In my opinion, and I am speaking for myself personally as a member of the Commission, St. Anne’s agreement to sell this parcel of land very much damages the historic nature of the neighborhood and is detrimental to the Town.

As for the credibility and intentions of Mr. Poutre, you should be aware that he directly lied to us not once but three times in his public presentation before the Commission, claiming that he had no plans for the property and was interested solely in the “future expansion needs of the St. Annes” — only to present an ANR to the planning board for development of the parcel less than a week later. Our chairman and I happened by chance to be at that meeting, and were shocked – to say the least – to see such a blatant example of misrepresentation. According to what Deacon Paul told me on the phone, one of the reasons for St. Annes selling the frontage to Mr. Poutre was in fact the parish’s desire to preserve the historic building at 28 Boston Road. To my way of thinking, this brings St. Annes and your committee very much into the public record, for if Mr. Poutre did in fact make those representations to you, then he should be expected to abide by them. One of the basic tenets of our Demolition Delay By-Law is that the owner of an historic property seeking demolition make “continuing, bona fide and reasonable efforts to locate a purchaser to preserve, rehabilitate or restore the subject building.”

“Bona fide” has certainly not been the case to date, and your unwillingness to clarify matters makes our task even harder. I will be reading this email exchange in its entirety into the public record. There may or may not be members of the press present.

Michael Weishan
Member, Southborough Historical Commission

[Editor’s Note: Poutre asserts that it is untrue to claim that the frontage sold by St. Anne’s made development possible. The original Conventional Plan would have allowed the house to remain on a separate lot it someone had purchased it to preserve it. He points out that the project that is going forward, which includes eliminating the existing house, doesn’t require the extra frontage purchased from the church. And he has followed through on his promise to donate land to the church as was always intended.

And, he asserts that he never lied. Since he had simply explained that his full plans weren’t definitive. He also asserts that he only promised to preserve the building if it was structurely sound, but that it wasn’t. He says that the building was examined by people including the building inspector and an expert for the Worcester diocese. He also says that he had offered that if anyone wanted to relocate the structure, they could buy it for $1.]

Weishan’s message prompted the parish to contact Shea – who was BOS Chair at the time. Shea then emailed Purple. Here are excerpts:

Perhaps I am sensitive to this, based on my knowledge of the integrity of the individuals that Mr. Weishan directed his email towards, but I am of the opinion that the last email by Mr. Weishan is of an abrasive and threatening nature, and is completely out of line with correspondence that any Board or Committee member should send to anyone or any business/institution in Town. It is not the merits of the matter that Mr. Weishan addresses that concern me, rather, it is the intimidating tone he takes in his communication.

This was shared with me during a meeting I had with Tom, Deacon Paul, and Fr. Albert last night at St. Anne’s. Deacon Paul and Fr. Albert are quite concerned about this, and question whether they need to involve legal help from the Diocese. I asked them to hold on that for now.

I followed up with Mr. Poutre this morning (an individual referenced in the emails), and he and I engaged in a lengthy discussion. The dealings Mr. Poutre relayed to me with the Historical Commission, and Mr. Weishan in particular, regarding the demolition delay issue at hand were difficult for me to believe. During my conversation with Mr. Poutre, he characterized his dealings with Mr. Weishan as “troubling”, “appalling”; that he has been slandered, and that his (Mr. Weishan’s) behavior is “over the top bad”. Mr. Poutre indicated that he will forward me email correspondence between Mr. Weishan and him to document this.

There isn’t much on the record between then and now. There is an email showing that then-selectman John Rooney had reached out to Hubley about the issue and that he and Shea wanted to meet with Hubley.

The most recent email from Shea in the batch was one to Poutre stating:

Just giving you a heads up that I whacked the hornets nest by stating my opposition to reappointing Weishan at our last meeting. I expect him to lash out – hopefully not too badly.

In between, the Historical Commission received training on how to handle the bylaw process, met again with Poutre last June, and made an unsuccessful attempt to have the Affordable Housing Trust purchase the property. Poutre received his demolition permit, has been in front of the Planning Board, and has been clearing the land to move ahead with his plans for a 6 unit Flexible Housing Development on the property. To make his case for the Flexible Plan, Poutre pitched it to Planning as better for the Town than the Conventional Plan. (I originally wrote that this was made possible by the original ANR in 2016. Poutre says, that’s not the case***)

*An update to the Board of Selectman’s website confirms that at its Friday morning meeting Lisa Braccio was voted in as the new Chair and Brian Shifrin as Vice Chair.

**(Town Administrator Mark Purple said that he didn’t get a copy of Poutre’s handouts at last Thurday’s meeting. He is following up with then-Chair Dan Kolenda.)

Updated (6/14/18 11:18 am): William Poutre reached out to me to correct one statement I made and clarify his response to charges made by Weishan. That included correcting my misstatement that Poutre claimed the email from Weishan referred to in the meeting accused Deacon Paul of lying. According to Poutre, he has other communications – not shared with the board – and in those Weishan accused the Deacon of lying. 

You can read his other responsers in Editor’s Notes responding to portions of the story above.

Not mentioned in the above post – Poutre also asked me to share that he still asserts that the Historical Commission never properly proved the house was older than 1925. He has a deed for the land from 1908 which shows no buildings existed. He also shared that he no longer owns 28 Boston Road. He conveyed a portion to St. Anne’s to help the parish with its needs. The remainder was sold to Kendall Homes.

***Updated (6/15/18 2:42 pm): Poutre followed up again to explain something I misunderstood from our previous talk. He explains that the ANR wasn’t necessary for the Conventional Plan:

The ANR was done so that if no additional development could be done, there would be two single house lots. (i.e. insurance to make sure I could get the value back for my investment as a single house lot in that area is worth approximately $240,000).

The Conventional Plan did not need the sliver from the church as it could be accomplished on the original single lot formerly known as 28 Boston Road without the church purchase. Thus, the ONLY purpose to the church purchase was as an insurance policy if no other development was permitted.

1 Frank Crowell June 13, 2018 at 6:26 PM

Maybe I am missing something or not reading correctly, but was there ever proof profided by the HIstorical Commission that the property was older than 1925?

2 beth June 14, 2018 at 7:58 AM

Here is the information from the past Mass Historical research project: http://www.mysouthborough.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/28-Boston-Rd-Bagley-Patrick-Butler-House.pdf

It was listed as circa 1895.

3 marcel proust June 17, 2018 at 10:03 PM

Excellent reporting, Beth. Thanks for the great job you do on clarifying this complicated situation. Transparency is what we need, and you are providing it. You give residents who have been silenced a chance to have a voice.

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