Garfield House saved – for now

Breaking news on the story of the Garfield (a.k.a. Burnett) House.

Earlier today I was informed via grapevine that the house closing did not go through on Friday. A statement on behalf of of the owners has now confirmed that.

In addition, it states that they hope to save the house from demolition.

According to the statement, John Delli Priscoli and his wife Jennifer were originally unaware that developer Bob Moss’ only intention was to demolish the historic home. So when a condition in the purchase and sale agreement wasn’t met they refused to extend the deadline.

Delli Priscoli explained:

We were very disappointed that Mr. Moss declined to discuss preserving the house with the town. . .

Had he initially made clear to my wife and me that demolition was the only option we would not have agreed to sell it to him.

On Monday, Delli Priscoli approached town officials to ask if the town and perhaps other interested entities may be interested in working together to preserve the property.

According to the statement:

Town officials met that request with measured optimism, and agreed to begin discussions with other town officials and civic leaders on how to put together an acceptable plan to preserve this historic home. Everyone concerned agrees that time is of the essence as there is a limited window to accomplish that goal.

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Seymour Goode
10 years ago

Newport RI has a Preservation Society for their Historic Homes… possibly Southborough could do likewise???

A Trust Fund for charitable donations could be set up, and would it be feasible for “This Old House” to get involved for renovations to bring the home back to its former glory? (I know that materials are not supplied by them but their time and instruction would be invaluable.)

10 years ago

I’m a licensed architect and will offer up my services in any way possible.
Save the gem!

Mark Kulacz
10 years ago

Great news. Would welcome any opportunity to meet with other interested parties on ideas / rennovation options for one of our town’s centerprieces.

Elizabeth Garfield
10 years ago

Hip hip hooray!

just cusious
10 years ago

Thank you to John and Jennifer Delli Priscoli. Now we need to have our elected officials work this problem, if possible.

And BOOO to Mr. Moss.

10 years ago

For now, all who are interested in becoming involved can get information on facebook at “Preservation Southborough”. Over the past week many people have expressed interest My understanding is that a group is being formed to begin collecting information and making plans. So check back here too!

Michael Weishan
10 years ago

While I am delighted that the proposed sale and demolition of the Burnett/Garfield House has been postponed, “postponed” is exactly what it has been, and I urge all those who have felt passionately about this matter not to fold their tents quite yet.

The details of this entire transaction are entirely murky, and I encourage our town officials to investigate fully as to what precisely has transpired, and what the “development” potential of the Burnett property actually IS given its abutment to the Sudbury Reservoir. From my viewpoint, though I certainly may be wrong, the Moss plan was dead on arrival given the setback requirements, which leaves many of us wondering exactly what battle we were fighting, and with whom? Certainly, one to preserve the historic structure. But beyond that? Entirely unclear.

Regardless, this entire affair has been a rude wake-up call to me and to many other semi-dormant residents of Southborough who truly care about the town we live in, but have become inactive. And I am ashamed to say that it took a delightful 14-year old to remind her seniors – who should have known better – how valuable our shared heritage is, and how we all need to keep involved. So putting ‘money to mouth,’ today I and two other former members of the Southborough Historical Commission filed papers to fill the 3 vacancies on the Commission that have long gone empty, often resulting in a lack of quorum. If appointed, we hope to use our past expertise to work with the current members of the Commission to speedily bring the long dormant demolition bylaw and historic district proposals to Town Meeting, explaining clearly and forcefully why these proposals will benefit every rate payer in Southborough, financially, culturally, and environmentally. This isn’t about any one property or person. It’s about quality of life for us all.

In the meantime, the Garfield/Burnett issue is FAR from settled. Remain vigilant, please, and for now give thanks to a young lady named Bridget Brady.

John Kendall
10 years ago

Thank you Michael!

Tim Martel
10 years ago

A big thank you for volunteering your time in service to the town.

In addition to the demolition bylaw and historic district proposals, could you please also investigate the possible use of Community Preservation Act funds in this case? If not outright purchase, note that “CPA funds can be used to fund a project on private property if the project is advancing a public purpose, such as the public acquiring a deed restriction, providing public access to the property or some other benefit.” I would be happy to help in some way.

10 years ago

The setback issues and abutment issues would have certainly postponed Me. Moss’s plans and he probably would have had years of revisions and new plans made up before anything really happened. The ‘fight’ was over the tear down. That could have happened when the sale went thru and that is what we postponed for the time being. Maybe town spirit will pull this off….it would be sweet.

Former Townie
10 years ago

I sure hope that this whole scenario doesn’t repeat itself when White Cliffs in Northborough gets sold. Another gem that I believe needs a lot of work and faces similar uncertainty.

10 years ago
Reply to  Former Townie

Agree….just noticed the for sale sign last week. Northboro historical society should try to get their hands on it and make a proper museum out of it.

10 years ago

Isn’t the Southborough Police Department looking for a new headquarters? Voila!

10 years ago

Town officials need to fix the fact that they are helpless, under current regulations, to protect the integrity of our town against a very small number of developers that have been trying to profit at the towns expense. Do you think these developers didn’t look into the current laws that might have any effect on building on Main St., Madison Place, or Park Central?? They are jumping on opportunities to take advantage of our small poorly run town, and we are allowing it by not being prepared.

10 years ago

Check out may have some useful information. They currently manage 36 historic properties in NE, including the Codman House in Lincoln and Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, CT.

Al Hamilton
10 years ago

I checked with the Town Treasurers Dept (which was very prompt and helpful) regarding CPC Funds.

Here is the status:

There is $149k in funds dedicated for Historic Purposes

There is $549k in unreserved funds.

This brings the total currently available could be appropriated for historic use this year to $698k (A town meeting would be required to access this money)

The fund has annual income of about $360K ($290k from local taxes and $70k from the state)

Of the $360k, $36k must go to open space, $36k must go to housing, and $36K must go to historic preservation and the town takes $18k for administration. So, after open space, housing and admin that leaves $270k.

There is a claim against that $270k. The town committed to pay a significant portion of the “Chestnut Hill Bond” from CPA funds about $205k/year. Assuming that the $36K that went to open space is used that leaves a balance of $169K. The Chestnut Hill bond is paid off in Nov of 2016. That leaves potential income that could be used between now and then of about $100k/year (I believe this would be starting in June of 15).


Use of CPC funds will only cover a modest fraction of the acquisition and renovation costs. Perhaps 15% to 20%.

If you want the town to purchase and renovate this building a very significant portion of the money is going to have to come from elsewhere. The choices are, cut services, raise taxes, sell assets, or find outside money.

Frank Crowell
10 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

What – the money has been spent – I am shocked.

Now we are back to spending other peoples money.

Time to get our state senator and representative involved and another round of bash the developers and current(?) owners. That aught to do it.

Al Hamilton
9 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

2nd Proposal to Save the Garfield House

Here is a 2nd proposal to save the Garfield House with a suggested method of funding the acquisition and renovation and actionable steps.

Costs to the Town of Southborough to Acquire and Renovate:

Purchase Price – $1.5 million

Renovation as described by the owners done under public contracting rules – $2.0 million

Modifications required for ADA (bath, ramps, lift) $1.0 million

Total Cost – $4.5 million


Existing CPA Funds $0.5 million

Sell Fayville Hall – $0.2 million

Sell South Union School – $1.0 million

Sell Cordaville Hall – $2.0 million

Pledge $0.1 million per year from CPA Income for 10 years to pay back loan – $0.8 million

My numbers are obviously rough estimates but this is a plan that could generate the sums required to purchase and renovate the Garfield house without raising taxes or cutting services. I believe all the functions done in these buildings could fit in the buildings. You might even get a nice soccer field in the yard.

The next step would be for someone or group to form itself with the stated objective of implementing this plan and do the hard work of vetting the idea.

This is a plan I would sign up for. It does involve difficult choices so I am sure it is a non starter.

Tim Martel
9 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al, I think you need to be more careful with your off-the-cuff financial analyses, as they tend to lead to pessimistic conclusions.

Sure, purchasing the Garfield house will cost us about 1 million USD. Renovating it will cost another million. Is the town ready to spend 2 million dollars on this project when we already have a need for a new public safety facility? Of course not.

But that is not the entire story. There are other options. Specifically, the town can work with the owners to place a Preservation Restriction (PR) on the property. Something a bit similar was done with the Chestnut Hill Farm in that the town purchased a Conservation Restriction on it. But this would be far cheaper.

If the owners are as sensitive to the historical value of this property as their recent words and actions suggest (i.e. [paraphrase] ‘we would not have sold it to Moss had we known he intended to demolish it’), then it might not cost the town a single penny. Or perhaps, as a measure of goodwill, the town could designate some of the CPA money for a preservation project of the exterior and grounds?

But the key point is that the Historic Commission (or the Selectmen, or the Planning Board, or maybe all three) must act NOW.

Al Hamilton
9 years ago
Reply to  Tim Martel


I think my guesstimate of the Acquisition/Rennovation costs are probably +/- $1 million (probably more + than -). I am certain that if the renovation is done by the town it will cost much more than if it is done by a private party.

Plans, as you know start with rough estimates and are then refined.

I have offered 2 specific plans which I admit are no more than rough estimates. Your idea has enough specificity to be added to the mix and that makes 3. I like the idea, if we can buy the historic preservation/redevelopment rights that would be far less expensive. What is your rough estimate of what the rights would cost?

I would much prefer a plan that keeps the property in private hands as the Town’s track record of caring for old buildings is poor and we have much more pressing needs for our funds.

Tim Martel
9 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton


The amount of payment isn’t an absolute. How strong is the seller’s desire to maintain the property as an historic structure? How strict will the covenant be (will it apply only to the exterior and grounds, or to interior as well?, will it allow the land to be subdivided or not?, etc.)? How far is Town Meeting willing to go to finance it?

I think benchmarking can help. See an example below which (if I read it correctly) seems to indicate that the owner received 25k (and 175k in restoration).

Also, a couple notes of interest for our Historical Commission:

1) As of 2010, the Garfield/Burnett House was not listed on the State’s Register of Historic Places. If still not listed, the Historic Comission should work to add it. That would make it eligible for Massachusetts Preservation Projects Funding.

2) The Mass Historical Commission has an “On the Road” program to help local historical commissions. There is contact information on this website.

SB Resident
9 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Is there anything preventing the town from getting a loan to buy this property? That way we don’t have to figure out how to get all the money now and that 100K per year should cover the payments.

Second is there a reason that you are assuming that we must renovate? or at least renovate any time soon? I’m assuming the majority of the people are happy with the status quo and just want to see the building maintained as is.

Al Hamilton
9 years ago
Reply to  SB Resident


To the best of my knowledge there is nothing that would prevent the town from acquiring the building either by negotiation or a “taking”. However, the devil is in the details.

To acquire Real Estate required a vote of Town Meeting (2/3 if I recall correctly).

To Borrow money also requires a 2/3 vote of Town Meeting and a majority at the polls. (This is a misnomer, what we are really authorizing is the taxes to repay the loan).

We could could buy the building and do nothing but I suspect that is a terrible idea. I suspect that this building has decades of deferred maintenance. I think it could swallow ten thousand dollar bills like a hippo eats cabbages. Further, the town has a bad track record of capital maintenance on old buildings. It will just decay.

If the town is going to buy it, we should do it only after we have a real plan for renovation and occupancy. That way when the voters are asked for the money they will know how much it is really going to cost and how it will be used. (By the way it will always cost more than you expect)

Taking the “Camels nose in the tent” approach is really not treating taxpayers fairly.

Janine G
10 years ago

This update made me so happy I burst into tears! But I definitely agree with Michael W’s comment above, we can’t just assume this is over, we need to stay vigilant.

Michael Weishan
10 years ago

A friend did some digging on Title 5 and the Garfield Burnett Property. A lot of legalese, but as I suspected the essence is you can’t build 4 houses on that land. You can potentially build one more, IF the house is owner occupied, and IF the new construction meets very stringent conditions, but that’s about it:

It seems there are significant issues raised with the proposed development on 84 Main Street since, among other things, most of the lot is located within 400 feet of the Sudbury Reservoir, which puts limits on new construction, creation of new buildable lots, and septic system siting.

Specifically, there appear to be significant legal constraints imposed by both 310 CMR 15 and 350 CMR 11. These constraints are applicable because most of the Joseph Burnett house lot lies within 400 feet of an arm of the Sudbury Reservoir. There’s an online Mass. DEP map on which you can see the shaded Title 5 setback area which extends 400 feet from the reservoir bank and covers most of the lot.

It appears that 350 CMR 11 prohibits any Alteration within 400 feet of the Bank of a Reservoir (11.04(3)(a)(1)), where “Alteration” includes the erection, reconstruction or substantial expansion of any buildings and the installation or substantial expansion of drainage, sewage and water systems (11.03). There are of course exemptions under 11.05 for existing structures, and these exemptions also allow “reconstruction, extension or structural change to any Structure lawfully in existence on July 1, 1992, provided that such reconstruction, extension or structural change…does not constitute a substantial change to or enlargement of that lawfully existing Structure…” (11.05(2))

The exemptions also allow “construction of one single-family Dwelling on any Lot existing as such prior to July 1, 1992, or the division of an owner occupied Lot existing as such as of July 1, 1992 into one additional Lot for a single family dwelling; provided, that wherever possible, there shall be no Alterations within the areas [that lie within 400 feet of a reservoir, etc.].” (11.05(3))

Additional sections of 350 CMR 11 may be relevant (involving sewage, variance procedures, etc.) — but just from the sections listed above, it appears that the proposed four-dwelling replacement of the Joseph Burnett house is not a straightforward matter. The creation of four lots by the ANR process may be a dead end if new dwellings cannot be built on some or all of the lots, and one wonders if the Southborough Planning Board would thus have a valid basis for denying the pending application under town code 244-3(C).

The Title 5 regulations (310 MMR 15) create other impediments to the proposed development through setback requirements (15.211(1)), limitations on shared septic systems and on division and aggregation of systems (15.004(2), 15.010(2), 15.291, and 15.292), and the strict standard for variances, especially for new construction (15.410(2)). Assuming that the construction of four new dwellings would be “new construction” within the meaning of 15.002, there would apparently be no way to meet the “manifestly unjust” criterion for a variance to setback requirements, shared-system limitations, etc. Any alleged hardship or injustice would apparently be self-imposed by an owner who chose to demolish an existing house with a grandfathered septic system, the rights to which aren’t automatically transferred to new dwellings if they don’t meet Title 5 requirements for setback, shared systems, etc. Here again, the creation of four lots by the ANR process may be a dead end if some or all of the lots can’t meet septic-system requirements, and one wonders if the Southborough Planning Board would thus have a valid basis for denying the pending application.

Along the same lines, one wonders if the Southborough Inspector of Buildings would have a valid basis under town code 62-5(A) for denying a normally ministerial demolition permit, or at least not granting such a permit unless/until the developer provided either a plausible explanation of how new dwellings could be built on the lot(s) or a written statement that the developer recognizes the improbability that new construction would be allowed to replace the existing grandfathered building.

Save the house
10 years ago

Are we going to focus on working with the homeowner or are we going to hire lawyers ?(and lose money and the house) I think we need to help the town and owner work together otherwise we are right back where we started. Looking for obscure and unclear regulations as a way to extract private property rights is a sure bet for disaster . Nothing beats working in harmony for a common cause . Let’s send the right message to this owner, roll up our selves and get to work!

Mark Kujawski
9 years ago

First of all…..bravo Bridget Brady and all of her friends who demonstrated amazing resolve and spirit to make the first step happen. I would suggest that the town convene a committee to discuss the plan of action for all potential scenarios for the purchase, restoration, and future plan for the Burnett House; Bridget is already on that committee.

There are many options for consideration, however the model that is chosen must be sustainable or we will be back at the drawing board in a few years after a few million dollars have been spent.

I agree with the message, let’s get to work.

fayville resident
9 years ago

I have seen beautiful old mansions turned into places that host weddings, special occasions, retreats, dining rooms and business meetings, among others. Also tours and maybe even a little shop on Burnett family memorablia, Southborough History. A destination trip for families.

9 years ago

If negotiation, compromise and thinking outside the four corners are needed, which from everyone’s account will be critical, we need Mr. Rooney to lead the town again. Whether you agree with him or not, he has a good track record and has been willing to take on the most difficult and controversial problems in town and offer creative and reasonable solutions. The town has benefited from this approach before so finger crossed I am hopeful we will again. JMO

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