Last Wednesday, the Board of Selectmen opted not to act on the Town’s Right of First Refusal for a Chapter 61A property at 135 Deerfoot Road. The board voted 3-2 to reject bringing an article to Special Town Meeting voters.
No project supporters spoke at the most recent meeting on the topic. But following the decision, the Southborough Historical Society has been decrying the board’s call. And SHS’ president says they are working on a plan to be better prepared for future opportunities.
In past meetings, proponents urged allowing voters to decide whether to use Community Preservation Act Funds and what to do with the land. In October meeting, Chair Dan Kolenda countered that voters elected selectmen to make decisions about what is best for the Town.
At the time, Kolenda’s effort to quash the project was overruled by fellow members. They voted to give proponents more time to work up an article.
On Wednesday, Town Counsel summarized a property inspection. New details on potential liabilities and expenses acted as a nail in the project coffin.
Selectmen learned about two underground tanks, asbestos in pipe wrappings, and possible old farm dumps that may contain toxic pesticides from old orchard farming techniques*. The information added to the board members’ concerns about what the Town would be undertaking if it purchased the property.
Despite the report, two members supported letting voters decide. But the new details were enough to secure two more no votes.
Member Brian Shea had already leaned against the project. He told the public that he also learned in their October 27th morning meeting that the Town “would be looking at a 20 year ownership” of the parcel. Expenses to the Town would include Facilities maintenance of the buildings and an inground pool on site.
Like Kolenda, Shea opined that buying a new parcel could jeopardize the preservation of St. Mark’s Golf Course supported by voters in the spring. Shea said it could distract from the focus and use CPA funds that might be needed to update and/or beautify the course.
Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf previously expressed some interest in bringing a project to voters. But she also made clear she had many concerns that would need to be addressed before she could support that. Liabilities in maintaining the historic home, especially if they failed to sell it off, was one of the red flags she had raised. Last week, she repeated her belief that it would be a mistake to proceed without an appraisal of the property.
In the minority were members Lisa Braccio and newly elected Brian Shifrin. Braccio said she struggled with the decision and had a lot of unanswered questions. But she always errs with letting voters decide how to spend the CPA money they paid into. Southborough Wicked Local covered Shifrin’s position:
“Given the size of the property and the input from all of the volunteer boards that we have that have provided input to selectmen, I’d still be in favor of it going to a town vote,” he said.
He said selectmen historically vote against bringing agricultural land to Town Meeting. He cited reports that many new homes cost the town more in services, than they bring in taxes.
“This is a huge problem for Southborough because the development of these 61A parcels increases the taxes for all residents and degrades the quality of life for all the citizens of Southborough,” he said.
Following the meeting, SHS President Michael Weishan derided the majority voters on the society’s blog:
Not only have these three decided of their own volition to doom one of the last remaining historic farm properties in town, but in a single vote they have raised our taxes, crowded our classrooms, and increased infrastructure congestion.
Town Administrator Mark Purple forwarded Weishan a copy of the Building Inspector’s report on the historic home. Weishan copied me on his emailed response:
Thank you for forwarding the report, though I was already aware of it.
Just so that the members of the Board of Selectmen fully understand, everyone involved in this effort knew that the Moses and Elizabeth Fay House at 135 Deerfoot needed a considerable amount of work. This is typical of every old house of this age, and in fact, my own house at 189 Cordaville had many of these same problems when I bought it in 1992. Fixing issues like these is what historic restoration and preservation is all about. There is nothing in this report that would have deterred a determined old-house lover, especially given the expansive nature of the property. Nor does it address the main issue that the development of this property will not only destroy the historic home and barn, but degrade the quality of life for everyone in Southborough.
The fact of the matter is, and remains, that the voters of Southborough should have had the opportunity to hear various solutions to preserve this property, one of which might have been as simple as buying the property, placing a preservation restriction on it and the land, and putting it back on the market at a reasonable price. Whatever the cost difference, the Town would have come out ahead in the end as it is well documented that development of these 61A open space parcels only increases property taxes for the rest of us, floods schools, and stresses already overburdened infrastructure. Last night’s decision only kicked the eventual cost-can down the road to the current Board’s successors, and in the process, doomed an invaluable piece of Southborough history.
I would respectfully suggest to the Board of Selectmen that they start listening to their own Town Boards, Committees and Commissions who in this case without exception advised them to place this issue in front of the voters for all the reasons outlined above. I think certain members of the Board of Selectmen might be surprised to learn that people in this Town will actually choose to pay to preserve what remains of our open space and historic architecture, as opposed to pay for future costly remediations like new schools, roads and other services after all our historic buildings and open space have vanished.
To this end, it is our intention to place a measure on this spring’s Town meeting, either via the Historical Commission or Citizen’s Petition, to educate the citizenry of Southborough about how we all lose when developers win on these 61A parcels, and gauge the voters’ support for preservation measures as a guide to future Board of Selectmen decisions.
*There were no firm details on liabilities and related costs. Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano explained that asbestos materials found in wraps around pipes in the basement are common for houses of that age. But he also indicated that the tanks were the biggest concern. He didn’t have any ballpark figures. But he pointed out that tanks with liquid aren’t just issues as having potentially leaked. There is risk from spills that can happen in process of removing the tanks.