Selectmen may waive right to stop development instead of asking voters – decision on November 8th (Updated)

Above: While some Town Committees are working out how to potentially preserve an historic home and keep land from potentially being developed for large housing projects, opponents to funding a CPC project are asking what other future, potential projects could be funded with the money. (image left from, right from Google Maps)

[Editor’s Note: It just dawned on me that the election to fill the vacant seat on the Board of Selectmen is the night before the decision on this project. While two votes could have stopped the project this week, it should require three votes to either approve or reject the project on November 8th.]

Last night, the Board of Selectmen again discussed potential development of over 28 acres of land on Deerfoot Road. At stake is the board’s right of first refusal on land that was previously untaxed.

The board learned that six town committees voted to support bringing a Community Preservation Act project to voters. Another committee was leaning that way. (None were opposed, though one still had questions.*)

But selectmen stopped just shy of quashing it. That could still happen on November 8th when they make their “final decision”. With a vacant seat on the board, it will only take two selectmen’s votes to end pursuit of a deal.

Chair Dan Kolenda, absent for the previous two discussions, was back at the table Tuesday night. He made clear from the outset that he opposed pursuing Town’s rights to make an offer.

His initial objection was spending close to $2M on the property and foregoing potential taxes. Town Administrator Mark Purple recapped that the funding would be sought through CPC funds not additional tax burden.

[Editor’s Note: This story is too long to recap all the details and purported impacts of waiving rights. You can find those in my previous story on the subject: Deerfoot Road parcel: Town may purchase land, preserve historic buildings, and/or restrict development (Would passing on first refusal mean a long term tax increase?)]

After hearing rebuttals to most of his objections, Kolenda continued to hold the project in disfavor. He opined that it wasn’t worth the cost vs future unidentified projects CPC funds might be used for.

The Chair told fellow selectmen that voters chose them to make decisions. He didn’t believe this was a project that should be brought to Town Meeting. He pointed out that all he needed was one more vote to end the initiative.

Selectwoman Lisa Braccio told her colleagues that given the support from committees she leaned towards bringing the project to voters. Kolenda countered that those members were doing their jobs as advocates of specific issues, like historical or open space preservation. He said that selectmen’s job is to decide what was in the best interest of the Town as a whole. He argued the project wasn’t.

Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf had previously leaned towards bringing the project to voters. But she continued to express concerns about some details. Her main worry was about selectmen’s responsibility for maintaining the historic home on the property if purchased. 

CPC Chair Freddie Gillespie had pitched that the Town could sell off the historic home with an historical preservation restriction on the exterior. Phaneuf questioned what the board’s responsibility would be until a sale occurred and worried what would happen if they had trouble finding a buyer. She believed more money needed to be in the article to cover maintenance and liability costs. 

Phaneuf also wanted to see an appraisal of the property and a final version of a warrant article that addressed “other obstacles” and specified what passive recreation on site would mean.

Selectman Brian Shea had previously been unconvinced that pursuing a project made sense. He appeared to remain unconvinced last night. He pointed to shrinking matches to the CPC by the state over time as something to consider.

But he sided with Braccio and Phaneuf in allowing more time for questions to be answered. All agreed that if there were too many unanswered questions on November 8th, they would end the process then.

It’s a tight turn around and an unusual situation. The deadline for making a match is December 26th. To avoid being too close to the holidays, the Town pushed up the date of a potential Special Meeting to November 30th. Warrants need to be posted 14 calendar days prior (November 16th), so selectmen have identified their next scheduled meeting as the deadline for CPC to present a final article.

(The burden on CPC was something that Chair Freddie Gillespie tried to push back on. Scroll down for that.)**

Public comment on a project was split. 

Abutter Cathi Bartolini claimed that until the issue was raised, no one knew that end of Deerfoot existed. She expressed agreement with Kolenda about potential costs for holding the land.

Dave McCay, speaking as a resident, opined that he worried about opportunities lost by having CPC money tied into this project. What if another unforseen, important project pops up like the Burnett House?

Janet Maney advocated that this project is “a Burnett House”. The Skylar Drive resident said that many people currently cut through her property to enjoy the undeveloped land. 

She raised a point mentioned in the previous meeting, but not addressed by officials this week. The developer’s documents indicated he plans to keep the historic home and build 5 additional homes.

Gillespie had said if he was willing to legally commit to that (including historical preservation of the home), waiving the Town’s first rights would be fine with the Open Space Preservation Commission. But without a legal commitment, once the developer owns the property he could do whatever he wanted, including building “another Park Central“.

Maney said that unless a commitment was made, she was wary of developer’s plans. She wondered how the developer could sell profitable homes in an area that is likely to have a future water tower overlooking it.

Deerfoot Road parcel and undeveloped land in area b
(click to enlarge)

Maney pointed to a lot of other undeveloped land in that area owned by Bartolini Builders and EMC, that could be bundled with the parcel to build a “Park Central” with access to three residential roads. (That made me curious. So, I took a look. Click on the map right to see the Deerfoot Road parcels and the nearby parcels Maney referenced.)

Speaking as a resident, Brian Shifrin said he believed the project should go to voters. Based on his past experiences, residents often don’t pay attention “until shovels are in the ground” or bulldozers on site. He said that since most residents don’t pay attention to public notices for BOS meetings, selectmen may not know how residents really feel about the parcel.

As Recreation Commission Chair Shifrin also addressed questions about future funding of Rec projects. He confirmed that recently approved projects basically completed their funding asks from CPC for the near future. 

Shifrin and Gillespie explained that CPC can’t fund certain projects, including a community/recreation center, playing fields with bleachers, and school playgrounds. 

Gillespie reassured the board and public that though money would be tight, the CPC would still have funds for other projects. 

Kolenda repeatedly questioned if funds would still be available to support the St. Mark’s Golf Course. Gillespie said it was possible and money was there, but couldn’t promise anything since she hadn’t been able to get an estimate of how much they may ask CPC for. She also pointed out that CPC funds couldn’t be used on the club house or driveways.

But given estimates for irrigation Gillespie had heard mentioned in past public meetings, she believed they would have funds to cover that.

Braccio encouraged the board to put together all of their questions for Town Administrator Mark Purple to forward.

Kolenda followed that all boards and residents who had ideas on what they would like CPC money to be used for in the future come forward. 

The Chair also asked for an analysis of what it would cost the Town to own and maintain property. And he asked to see what costs would be of forgoing tax revenues that could come in from new residences on the land.

*The following committees voted to support bringing a CPA project to Town Meeting: Community Preservation Committee, Planning Board, Open Space Preservation Commission, Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee, Recreation Commission, and the Historical Committee. The Conservation Commission didn’t vote. But according to Freddie Gillespie of the CPC, a representative told them that ConCom had a positive discussion about it and was interested in walking the property before voting.

Advisory hasn’t voted. Chair Adrian Peters said that he would like to know what will be needed from the CPA over five years.

**Normally, the CPC is just responsible for voting on project proposals to decide which are presented to Town Meeting. If they approve supporting an article, they help with final language, but they don’t develop projects.

The CPC previously offered $8,000 for selectmen to hire someone to look at the project possibilities and help create an article. Instead, of using it, selectmen sent the project back to CPC asking them to draft an Article. Chair Freddie Gillespie said that she and other committees have been scrambling to do that work in a short turnaround. She was frustrated to be hearing that “they” needed to fix the article. She believed it was something selectmen should be collaborating with the CPC on. Phaneuf said they are and Kolenda moved on.

Updated (10/18/17 8:41 pm): I just updated the post based on the November 7th Special Election. While it is true that a tie vote would kill the project, traditionally new selectmen are sworn in the night of their election. That means that there shouldn’t be a tie when the Board makes its decision on November 8th. (Which means this issue is likely to come up at Candidate’s Night.)

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