Town considering options to secure land off Deerfoot (Special Town Meeting at end of November?)

Above: With a historic home and many acres of undeveloped land slated to be sold to a developer, Town Committees are asked to weigh in on what they would want to do with the land if Town voters opted to match the offer. (image left from, right from Google Maps)

As I posted yesterday, the clock is ticking for the Town act on matching a $1.9 million offer on close to 28 acres of “forest land”. This week, Town Counsel publicly confirmed that the notice of intent to sell came with a bonafide offer. By my math, that means the Town has until December 26th to act.

This week, some of the options for use of the land or paying for the match were highlighted, including some that might not cost additional tax dollars.

As I wrote about last week, the parcel in question is 135 Deerfoot Road. (Technically, it is two parcels, which includes a lot designated on Google Maps as 126 Deerfoot Road.)

On August 28th, the Town received notice of owners’ intent to sell property designated as forest land under Chapter 61. (That doesn’t mean all 27.8+ acres is actually forest land. It includes an approximately 200 year old – some say historic* – home and old barn with landscape yard.) The statute allows the Town 120 days to act on their right of first refusal. 

“Acting” would require authorization by Town Meeting voters. Selectmen discussed potentially holding a Special Town Meeting at the end of November to handle this issue only. (It would be the third Special Town Meeting in just over a year.)

As of their Tuesday night meeting, the board wasn’t advocating for purchase of the property. And before voting on opening a Town Meeting Warrant, Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf said she would want to hear from boards about what they want to do with the land. 

At this point, no committees have voted to support the purchase. (Most haven’t had a chance to discuss it as a committee, let alone look at details to consider a formal vote.) But representatives from multiple committees did push to take a better look at the opportunity and what should be done. And many were already recommending that Town voters make the call.

Planning Board Chair Don Morris was the first committee rep up to the mike. He recalled that a report, which he is having trouble locating, had found that purchasing Open Space can have a longer term savings for the Town’s tax burden than allowing land to be developed. He characterized developments as conveyor belts to the school system, and referred to costs related to additional roads and services.

What may surprise some readers is word that neighbors purportedly would prefer the land be purchased by the developer who has made the offer, Brendan Properties. According to abutter Marguerite Landry, she and about 20 neighbors worry about what the Town might have in store if it purchases the parcel. 

It’s worth noting that many residents from the neighborhood have been at odds with the Public Works Planning Board. Homeowners publicly disagreed with recommendations for a water tower at Fairview Hill that they purport would ruin views in their area.

It may also surprise you to learn that not all Town Committee interest was to keep any new housing off the land. 

Freddie Gillespie, Chair of the Community Preservation Committee said it had several hundred thousand dollars available for Affordable Housing projects. She suggested that using some of the land for around 17 homes could re-secure “safe harbor” from unwelcome, larger 40B projects.

Gillespie explained that most people don’t know that the protected status based on the Park Central approval has already passed. She also suggested preserving and making use of the existing home and barn as some sort of housing project.

Gillespie didn’t completely shed her other role as Chair of the Open Space Preservation Commission. She believed there could still be opportunity to preserve some of the land as Open Space. And prior to speaking with her CPC hat, she said OSPC had identified the parcel on its priority lists. Helping to pay for the full parcel is potential for CPC to fund out of multiple accounts if planned correctly. (In other words, the historic preservation of the home and barn and open space protections could come from different buckets than the Affordable Housing.)

She also responded to comments she had heard that she “just got the golf course“. Referring to a 30 year gap between that deal and purchased protection of Chestnut Hill, she said that “Open Space doesn’t work that way.” She followed, you never know when the opportunities will come and go. And she reminded the public that many past Open Space priority parcels were crossed off the list because they were gone.

The board agreed that they should hear from some committees that weren’t present that night, including SHOPC (Southborough Housing Opportunity Committee), Recreation, and Historical. They agreed to put it on the agenda for their October 3rd meeting. 

As for whether or not a Special Town Meeting will be called, Phaneuf and Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf seemed to lean towards letting voters make the decision. Chair Dan Kolenda was absent. And Selectman Brian Shea seemed uncertain about advancing an article.

Shea pointed to his responsibility as an elected official to represent residents. And he was worried by the fact that a project wouldn’t come at zero cost. He referred to a presentation earlier in the evening with warnings from the Finance Director about potential tax increases.**

Gillespie rebutted that funding from CPC wouldn’t add to the tax bill, since the CPA funds are taken in the set surcharge on tax bills, and money is already sitting in accounts.

Another no-taxpayer-cost method was floated that night. Whitney Beals, President of Southborough Open Land Foundation informed the board that selectmen can “assign” their first right of refusal to a non-profit, as long as half of the land is preserved as Open Space. Half the land could then be spun off to recoup the investment. Beals said that SOLF or Sudbury Valley Trustees might be interested.

If a Special Town Meeting is held, the Warrant would need to be opened two weeks in advance. We should hear more on this at the October 3rd Board of Selectmen Meeting. And you should expect to see items like “135 Deerfoot Road” or “Chapter 61 right of refusal” on several Town Committee agendas in the coming weeks. For more details on the property, see my initial post here.

135 deerfoot road*Southborough Historical Society’s Donna McDaniel opined that it would be desirable to add to our historic treasures. The group’s president (also a member of the Historical Commission) has since posted news about the house and property, lobbying to preserve it. The house is known to have been built by 1831, but believed likely built around 1810s or as early as the 1700s. You can view the Mass Historic Property card here.

**Earlier in the evening, Finance Director Brian Ballentine said the budget was still in process and numbers to be “massaged”. But he warned that big capital expense items were coming, along with impacts from the Public Safety Building project.

Ballentine reminded the board that $700K of capital expenses were deferred last year. In the next budget, they are looking at an approximate increase of $1.5 million increase in capital expenses. He also reminded them that the Public Safety Building project’s approved funding didn’t cover any work to rehab the golf course to work around the facility.

The Treasurer made clear that piling up bonded projects will have an impact on property tax bills.

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5 years ago

I Appreciatr the bucolic small town New England feel so I’m all for preserving the land.

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