Burnett House owner warns preservation in peril

Above: The owner of the historic estate warns that the window for preservation may be closing. (Photo by Kate Matison)

The owner of the much-loved Burnett Estate issued a public warning Friday.

In a statement, Jon Delli Priscoli said he is still interested in preserving “the house and maintain the setting as single residence or a boutique bed and breakfast.” But he appears to be reaching the end of his rope.

Priscoli warned that if an agreement isn’t “immediately” reached to address preserving the estate in front of Annual Town Meeting, he “will be forced to entertain the other available options for the property.”

I believe the immediacy of that demand is based on the Town Meeting timeline.

On Tuesday night, the Board of Selectmen officially closed the ATM Warrant. Only they have power to re-open it. If they don’t, new articles, even citizen’s petitions, can’t be added. But there may be an opening for that soon.

At this week’s meeting, the board indicated they would consider reopening the Warrant at their January 19th meeting. (That discussion focused on their possible withdrawal of an article to change Transfer Station fine bylaws.*)

Town Administrator Mark Purple warned the board:

Just be cognizant that if you open up the warrant again and there’s something else waiting, you may be adding more than just one article.

No mention was made of the Burnett House, at least in the public session. I’m not yet privy to what was covered in their closed Executive Sessions that night. (I can tell you that the sessions were closed “to consider the purchase of real property.” But I can’t say what property. And there are other ongoing town projects I could imagine selectmen discussing under that exemption.)

As for the board’s recent actions regarding preservation, estate owner Jon Delli Priscoli, writes:

While there have been several versions of that plan discussed and drafted during over the last year, the most recent version was provided to the Board of Selectmen in mid-November with comments from Mass Historical Commission being provided in late December.

For more background on the property and preservation efforts, click here.

Here is Priscoli’s full statement:

“Seventeen months have passed since I terminated a sale and saved the Burnett House from being demolished and started what I had hoped would be a successful plan to preserve the house and maintain the setting as single residence or a boutique bed and breakfast. I have worked with and negotiated in good faith with the Town of Southborough and am still very interested in arriving at a mutually agreeable framework to enact plan which compliments these goals.”

“While there have been several versions of that plan discussed and drafted during over the last year, the most recent version was provided to the Board of Selectmen in mid-November with comments from Mass Historical Commission being provided in late December. Giving up development rights to this extremely valuable property has financial ramifications associated with it, and the clock continues to tick.”

“I cannot carry this property forever and take the chance that there will be negative financial ramifications to my family and time is becoming a critical issue. There needs to be an agreement in place immediately in order to make it to the floor of the Spring Town Meeting for consideration or I will be forced to entertain the other available options for the property. I sincerely hope we can come to some agreement in time to save this historic landmark.”

*Note: The Transfer Station Warrant Article to be addressed was submitted to the board in the fall by the Green Technology & Recycling Committee. Selectmen were surprised to see the draft warrant marked the article as sponsored by the BOS. It was revised to list the sponsor as the Green Committee. But Selectmen also asked to hear from that committee on the 19th.

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8 years ago

So, basically he says give me money or I walk, make this your problem not mine, I am taking my ball and going home. He can’t hold the residents or the town hostage because that will never end well. He needs to step up to the plate and do the right thing here. Hopefully we can find some loophole to stop this man from ruining a town treasure and historical building.

Frank Crowell
8 years ago
Reply to  resident

If I were him I would have gotten out of this (if I could) a long time ago. Any private owner who stepped forward to preserve this property was placed in a real world “Kobayashi Maru.” I wish him the best of luck going foward,

Christa Brady
8 years ago
Reply to  resident

The good news is that the Burnett-Garfield House, a town treasure and property of immense and priceless historical value to our community, still stands! If Mr. Delli Priscoli had wanted to exercise his right to demolish it or sell to another owner with similar intentions, he would have done this months ago. Fortunately for Southborough, he has to date chosen the most ethical path; differentiating between having the right to do something and doing the right thing. This is certainly not a “no-win” situation as Mr. Crowell suggests. By securing a preservation restriction on this property, our town will enjoy this beautiful viewscape and
testament to our past for generations to come, and Mr. Delli Priscoli will receive compensation (arrived at by independent appraisal of the restriction) for giving up his right to demolish the house and subdivide the land. I urge Mr. Delli Priscoli and our selectmen to finish collaborating on such a restriction! To learn more about the historical significance of The Burnett-Garfield House and to engage in healthy dialogue around this property, “Like” Friends of Burnett-Garfield House on Facebook. Of course, the Southborough Historical Society at southboroughhistory.org is another treasure trove of information. “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.” – Thomas Jefferson

Rebecca Deans-Rowe
8 years ago
Reply to  Christa Brady

Very well said, Christa. Thank you for your continued dedication to preserving this landmark property.

Frank Crowell
8 years ago
Reply to  Christa Brady

If win means the preservation is placed on the back of the current owner and/or on the back of the over taxed town resisdent, then it is a loss. We have larger needs and limited resources and close to getting out from under overbuilding the number of schools.

8 years ago

I fail to see why this man has any obligation to the town and it’s residents. It’s his property and he should be allowed to do what he wants with it. The town and it’s residents could have bought it but they didn’t. Now he owns it and everyone wants to dictate what he can do with it.

Allan Bezanson
8 years ago

Back in November 2014 Terry Newman of Southborough Access Media interviewed Jon Deli Priscoli and he spoke about his ideas at the time for the place. In the course of events since the plans may have changed, but that is often the way with large projects like this. Here’s the link:

I call it a ‘place’, not just a house, for there are four important historic buildings on what was once a beautifully-landscaped estate at 84 Main. The south side of the property abuts the Wachusett Aqueduct Linear District (US National Park Service Register of Historic Places), which is bordered by the Sudbury Reservoir Trail on Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation land. The trail passes through what was the original barn of Burnett’s Deerfoot Farm. Bordering that and spanning between Deerfoot and Parkerville Roads is a beautifully-maintained estate with a historic stable and carriage house that were once part of Deerfoot Farm. And there is more …. next to the little stone shop/chapel at 84 Main is the waterfall where grist mills provided services vital to the town from the very beginning in 1664 until 1897 when Stony Brook was converted to a reservoir for the thirsty city of Boston.

Hewitt Heiserman
8 years ago

Hopefully all parties can work together to preserve the Burnett House at 84 Main Street, which offers our community a unique viewscape, architecture (French Second Empire), and social history (original owner Joseph Burnett is one of our town’s greatest native sons).

Historic preservation also stimulates local economies, as this 2011 report by PlaceEconomics explains

Al Hamilton
8 years ago

The reality is that after a year and a half, nobody has come up with a concrete plan to preserve this property. There is a lot of “If only” and “it would be nice if” discussions but the hard reality is that someone is going to have to pony up $7 figures and no one has come forward with an open checkbook.

For the Town to fund this would almost certainly require a borrowing and would require a 2/3 vote at town meeting and probably a majority at the polls. I am not sure the political will exists to clear this hurdle.

Allan Bezanson
8 years ago

This Sunday, January 17th, the Historical Society Museum located behind Pilgrim Church will be open from 1:00-3:00 PM. Come on by and find out how vanilla beans and jersey cows helped shape your town. Were it not for the ingenuity, business acumen, dedication to quality and the generosity of the Burnett family, the center of Southborough today might look more like the center of Northborough. Talk to Deborah Costine and me about our short guided walking tour near the Deerfoot Road dam. We would welcome the chance to share with you what we have discovered – all pertinent to the value of the property at 84 Main. If you are walking-challenged we can position you in one spot, rotate you 360 degrees, and with photographs from the Massachusetts Archives, records from the US National Park Service Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society prove that you never knew what you thought you knew.

Allan Bezanson
8 years ago
Reply to  Allan Bezanson

The reference to Northborough was in no way meant to disparage our neighbor. I was a Northborough townie, growing up there in the 40’s. I love the town and have a pretty clear recollection of how it was then – much smaller than Southborough is today. Every other day I was all over the town delivering milk from our dairy. Now Northborough’s center is traffic-challenged to say the least, with the architecture of retail businesses contrasting with the beautiful stately homes on East Main. I am not a Southborough townie, having lived here for only 47 years.

Northside Resident
8 years ago

Mr. Delli Priscoli is trying really hard to do the right thing – why isn’t our town government? Every time I drive by that house I imagine it beautifully lit up and alive again. Cross your fingers everyone!

Could this really just come down to one high profile resident, who somewhat abuts the Burnett House, not wanting the antique shop?

Al Hamilton
8 years ago

What make you think that the town is not trying to do the right thing? Is, for example, this the highest and best use of $1-2 million of the taxpayers dollars? The “right thing” might be to apply these monies to some other priority. Full Day Kindergarten? Improved Services for Seniors? Expanded Rec Programs? There is no shortage of worthy things to do with these funds. (Of course there is also the option of giving the taxpayers a break but pigs will fly first)

Alison Craftsman
8 years ago

To the editor of MySouthborough.

Please can you bring us up to date on the future of the Burnett house. I have spoken to many residents who are very alarmed, and very confused.

Previous articles have covered the owner’s interest in saving the mansion. His initial plans to restore the mansion as a home for his family proved to be unacceptable. Then, your later articles covered the granting of a permit from the ZBA, allowing conversion of the mansion into an upscale Bed and Breakfast. On Jan 9 you referenced a request from Mr Priscoli to the Town to get moving, and make a prompt decision, but your article did not explain what the decision was for. Now, on Jan 30 you mention an imminent meeting involving a “purchase”, but again you do not explain what for.

I can think of no other project which would have such a positive impact in helping to preserve the unique character of our town. An historic, upscale, bed and breakfast would seem to be an ideal solution.

At the other end of Flagg Road you have a gigantic project (Park Central) which will do the exact opposite, causing a massive negative impact on our town.

Please write a lead article giving us the full current status of the Burnet house.

Thank you.

Deborah Costine
8 years ago

HI Alison,
Thank you for your interest in this important local history. The “Friends of the Burnett-Garfield House” have been working steadily to help with this preservation with research, and outreach. We would love your involvement if you are interested. The history of the house and the family is definitely significant for our town! You can reach us through our Facebook page (see link above) and/or by coming to the Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday night.

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