St. Mark’s School purchased 2nd downtown home since Annual Town Meeting (Updated)

Above: Two historic homes on Southborough’s downtown Main Street were bought up by St. Mark’s School, apparently without ever going on the market. (image from Google Maps)

St. Mark’s School recently purchased another downtown Main Street property. The school is applying to use 26 Main Street as a 2 family home for faculty housing. The purchase is the second one made by the school since Town Meeting voters approved asking the private schools to pony up more money towards the Town’s budget.

In April, the school purchased 17 Main Street, a property abutting the former public safety stations at 19 & 21 Main Street. (The school acquired the Town’s parcel in 2017 as part of the deal for the Town’s purchase of the golf course and property for the new public safety building.) 26 Main Street is directly across the street. Although the online property cards still list the previous owner, the January permit application states that St. Mark’s “recently” purchased it.

Neither house appears to have ever been publicly listed on MLS as for sale.

The purchases are interesting in light of a few recent Town government efforts: the Downtown “revitalization” Initiative, “preservation” of the historic downtown, and increasing private schools PILOT contributions given the amount of nontaxable land they own.

Southborough’s Economic Development Committee has been working on an initiative to revitalize the Downtown Main Street area. One approach members are pursuing is a zoning overlay district to make it easier for developers to pursue mixed- use projects downtown. (Although, the Article won’t be ready to vote on at this Annual Town Meeting.*) One public criticism EDC has had to address is the small number of properties available for envisioned improvements.

Still, the EDC has pitched that it is seeking only desirable development while preserving the Town’s bucolic character. And another committee has been specifically working to preserve historic homes like the ones purchased by St. Mark’s.

In recent years, the Historical Commission has campaigned to preserve historic facades. Work included: recognizing the historic nature of buildings through a sign program, a bylaw to delay/discourage demolition of old/historic buildings, a bylaw to encourage preservation of historic facades through special allowed uses, and pursuing a designation for a section of downtown Main Street as an historic district.

Both of the recent purchases by St. Mark’s were of homes built circa 1815-1843 in the targeted historic area. According to St. Mark’s application to the Zoning Board of Appeals, all planned renovations of 26 Main Street are to the interior. Presumably, that means the historic exterior is safe. (I have no details on plans for 17 Main Street.)

But while at least one of the buildings may be preserved, the purchase is yet another instance of property coming off of the tax rolls.

The Assessor’s public records show that the two recent purchases have a combined assessed values of $991,200. That brings the assessed value of land owned by St. Mark’s School in Town to $96,549,000.**

[Editor’s Note: That value was the from the Town’s listed assessed values. A form filed by the school in 2019 indicates the values are higher. See details below.**]

Concerns about the amount of land owned and continuing to be purchased by the three private schools in town prompted a Citizen’s Petition hotly debated at last year’s Town Meeting. 

Organizers of a PILOT Article sought to push the schools to increase their Payments in Lieu of Taxes. Proponents said the schools have no downside in continuing to invest in land, especially houses for staff and students. Their actions increase their use of Town resources while decreasing the amount of land taxes are paid on. They argued that the schools should be making more reasonable contributions to offset that. They asked voters to pressure selectmen and the schools to effect a change.

The Article laid out a plan that included some “teeth”. If selectmen found the schools resistant, they would come back to voters in a year to ask to repeal Dover Amendment protections. (That would still require approval from the legislature.) The Dover amendment allows the schools exemptions from Town zoning codes.

Proponents argued that the Article needed “teeth” to incentivize the schools. But opponents worried that the message to the schools was too combative. Some pointed out non-financial ways the schools support the Town. (One example cited was allowed use of St. Mark’s field for events like Heritage Day, Santa Day, and the Food Truck Festival.) In the end, an amended, toothless version passed. It essentially amounted to a request by Town Meeting voters to pursue increased PILOT payments.

Initially, selectmen announced that they would create a PILOT committee. That was changed to be an effort by the Chair and Vice Chair of the Board of Selectmen. That was put on hold to address concerns raised about Open Meeting Laws. Since the fall, Vice Chair Marty Healey has been working on the effort alone.

In his most recent update this month, Healey announced findings consistent with past reports from former Selectman John Rooney. As a selectman Rooney had previously spearheaded the Town’s PILOT efforts. Last year, as a member of the Advisory Committee, he was part of a discussion about PILOT strategy prior to Town Meeting. He advised that Fay and St. Mark’s boards were historically against committing to regular, general contributions to the Town. They were more likely to respond to request to help pay for specific capital expenses.

Last week, Healey indicated that the schools’ boards were more likely to help with one-time expenses seen as related to the school’s missions. He intended to continue following up with the schools in private meetings, and would report back to the board.

As for 26 Main Street, the ZBA hearing is scheduled for February 12th.

Normally, a property going before the ZBA for a 2 family home is required to first get a report from the Board of Health:

certifying that adequate provisions have been made in accordance with the requirements of the Board of Health for drainage and the disposal of sewage and waste generated by the occupancy of the two-family dwelling.

Since nothing was on the BOH agendas, I followed up with Public Health Director Paul Pisinski. He informed me that the school situation may be different than outlined in the bylaw.

Due to the amount of sewage the schools need to handle daily, they are required to have their own Water Treatment Plant. That is under the jurisdiction of the Mass DEP. Pisinski has advised the school to check with the state. He believed DEP may require the school to hook up their new properties to the plant. (He also thought that 26 Main may have failed its Title V inspection, but he couldn’t confirm at the time that we spoke.)

Updated (1/29/19 2:50 pm): I received more information on the taxable value of land from forms filed in 2019 that I inserted in the notes below.

*The Planning Board announced last night that the EDC has asked to withdraw its zoning Article for the 2020 Annual Town Meeting. Stay tuned for more details on that.

**Note: I was curious about how much land St. Marks was scooping up and how much the schools owned all together. Fay School is listed as owning $53,685,700 worth of property in Southborough and New England Center for Children $30,682,500.

But all three schools figures from the Assessor’s public records aren’t necessarily up to date. Given that the assessor’s office can’t tax the properties, they don’t have incentive to update the assessments. Meanwhile, the schools are required to submit a state form listing the property values each year. In February 2019 (before the two most recent purchases), St. Mark’s self reported $103,000,000 in value. Fay reported $82,538,913.

While NECC is the smaller of the three land owners, it’s also the biggest contributor of annual PILOT payments. NECC also increases it’s payments when it acquires more land. That has kept it in good standing with Town officials and put the focus of private school PILOT talks on St. Mark’s and Fay School.

St Mark's school owned parcelsI compiled a table of the land parcels for St. Mark’s and Fay here, including dates of purchase, value, sq ft, etc.

I also piece together an image of the parcels now owned by St. Mark’s below from the Town’s GIS map:

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4 years ago

They can buy my place too when my tax bill reaches my yearly income, it’s getting closer every year

4 years ago

Thank you for your report on this subject, Beth. I appreciate your dedication and hard work in bringing this information to the residents. It’s important for people to know what is happening around town and how that impacts their taxes.

4 years ago

And they don’t even have to pay any property taxes, lucky ducks!!

4 years ago
Reply to  Chris

Thank you Beth. This was comprehensive and informative.

Casual Observer
4 years ago

Thank you Beth, for keeping us informed. As I said in my prior post, something seems wrong about the EDC. I encourage Southborough residents who share my concern to listen to the planning board meeting discussion at 2:19. The Board didn’t announce the EDC withdrew its article–there were legal opinions that the EDC’s article was in violation of Massachusetts General Laws. The EDC’s lack of awareness about proper processes is not only concerning, but also expensive for the town: the Planning Board had to consult with Town Counsel and Special Counsel to navigate it. At what cost? Furthermore, it appears that EDC has broken open meeting law!

Michael Weishan
4 years ago

The rate payers of Southborough have wasted another year with decades-old BOS excuses. It’s like that old adage: “we send out men and they return mice.” Other communities, in particular Milton and Andover have vibrant and functioning PILOT programs. This is not rocket science, but it will obviously have to be engineered from concerned citizens who actually bear the painful costs of these private school expansions.It’s time for the Dover Amendment exemption to be put back on the next town meeting.

Al Hamilton
4 years ago

The first question that should be asked of each prospective Selectman candidate is whether they favor bringing the Dover Amendment exemption back before Town Meeting.

Begging for PILOT payments has been a clear failure. Any candidate who wants to continue doing the same thing is planning on failing.

Frank Crowell
4 years ago

Michael – you are absolutely correct. Just want to add the obvious (to most) that St Mark’s taking over another property in town is the trusties collectively thumbing their noses at all property taxpayers in Southborough.

Patricia Burns Fiore
4 years ago
Reply to  Frank Crowell

This subject will go nowhere until we have a BOS where the majority support the idea of fair compensation from non profit public schools to support the municipal services they use. We do not have that. Remember that at election time.

4 years ago

“Other communities, in particular Milton and Andover have vibrant and functioning PILOT programs. ”

Care to share how Milton and Andover achieved success?

Did the repeal the Dover Amendment at TM?

thank you

michael weishan
4 years ago
Reply to  n

Ms. Patti Fiore did an extensive presentation about this at the last Town Meeting. No other town except Cambridge has repealed the Dover Amendment. That being said, Milton and Andover went into the process with the clear knowledge that they were willing to pursue ALL available means to get an agreement—like any reasonable negotiator would do—and they succeeded. Instead of clearly studying the brilliantly simple Milton example, wherein Milton Academy agreed to continue contributing the tax payments for properties it acquires, the BOS—who voted AGAINST pursuing PILOT payments at Town Meeting—reluctantly sent an unwilling ambassador who threw up his hands at the first opposition and declared defeat. The citizens petitions are still open. I think we need a very simple petition along the lines of: “The ratepayers of Southborough, frustrated with the ongoing assault to the tax roles made by our large educational institutions, request the BOS to present a PILOT plan similar to Milton’s, in which large educational institutions over a certain net worth agree to pay the real estate tax equivalent of all properties they have acquired over the last decade, such an agreement to be signed within 90 days of Town Meeting, and to go into effect for the upcoming real estate tax year. Should these institutions (in this case St. Marks, NECC, and the Fay School) decline, the voters instruct the BOS to call a special town meeting to discuss our options, including the repeal of the Dover Amendment, in order to regain some statutory control over our neighbors.”

We tried the carrot, and it got us no-where. Frank, Al, I’ll happily sign and present if no one else want to.

4 years ago

BOS, Board of Spending, stop spending and pay attention to these comments. Tax bills are approaching ridiculous. Take a harder look at the year-over-year increases, especially those line items and departments that continually come back with their hands out, some with way-more-than-inflation increases.

As for PILOT, other towns do it better. Get with it. Take a look. We can do better.

As for the then BOS deal geniuses who were asked to go get an easement from St. Marks and came out with a golf course, then ferociously fought the successful resident-backed conservation restrictions, congratulations on not putting in deed restrictions on the “trade,” the former public safety building properties. Not sure if this was actually intentional or not, but all can now watch and wait to see what happens there. In the meantime, the taxpayers pay for all this controversy and outcomes. This town can do a better job putting the taxpayers first instead of greed driven developers (and their fee based cronies).

Patricia Burns Fiore
4 years ago
Reply to  n

While researching this topic last year, I spoke with dozens of people in both private schools and town offices throughout the commonwealth. I thought the most successful application I found was the town of Milton. The town has an agreement (town personnel did not know whether it was a written or handshake agreement) where the school would maintain its tax exempt status on all academic buildings, but pay full assessed tax rate for all residential properties owned by the school and used for faculty housing. The amount paid would be adjusted in accordance with all residential property assessments and re-assessments in town. In FY17 that was $109,000 and in FY 18 it was $120,000 paid to the town.
Early on I was told by someone involved in an earlier PILOT committee that the attitude of at least one of the school’s when approached about making realistic payments for municipal services was, basically, they are not obligated to and therefore they will not.
Taking the Dover Amendment out of the picture has no affect on what property the non profits can or will buy… but it gives the town a little bit of control over what they can do with that property. They would have to abide by zoning regulations that every taxpayer has to abide by. As the schools have bought up residential property (on Main St. and elsewhere), all that property has come off the tax rolls. So, who is paying those taxes because I don’t think the town has reduced anything to compensate for it? Pretty sure it is represent in the increases to those of us that do pay taxes.
Even Boston, which collects millions in PILOT payments wants a change;

Patricia Burns Fiore
4 years ago

The town places an assessed value on all property, but in my research last year for the citizen’s petition I learned that the town does not update the assessments for the property owned by the private schools on any kind of regular basis because, as I was told by our town assessor, there is no need to update them because they do not pay taxes. A more accurate financial look at the property would be from the 3ABC’s which are filed with the town by each non profit in order to maintain their tax exempt status. This must list property owned and what the property owner considers a “fair market value.” At the time I did research for last year’s TM, St. Mark’s 3ABC fair market value was $103,000,000; Fay School $82,538,913; and New England Center for Children $35,399,054.

4 years ago

Has any town tried to enact a law adding a “future lost income” kind of tax on any new property purchases by non-profits? And if we can’t impose the tax on the non-profit, can we impose it on the seller? Something the equivalent of 4 -5 years of future property tax to give the town some time to adjust its spending because of the lost income. Seems a legit argument… after all, a very major batch of purchases by all 3 non-profits in the same year would be crippling.
My understanding of the Dover Amendment repeal ( based on a comment I recall from a couple of years ago by someone on the Planning Board ) is that it doesn’t really provide much tax income relief as it only forces the non-profit to comply with our zoning and building regulations and doesn’t have much to do with tax income for the town. But maybe my recollection is inaccurate.

Michael Weishan
4 years ago

So here are the Pilot figures from all the municipalities over the state from 2012. Since this report, Milton has doubled its figures to well over 200K, and Andover has tripled it to 300K, Boston has tripled to 36M and we have done pretty much nothing. Groton is another excellent example: the same tier as St. Marks, they have voluntarily been contributing over 100K for the last decade. It’s pretty clear that where there is a will there is a way.

No. Nonprofits Making PILOTs PILOT Revenue
City State Year Total Pct. General Revenue Pct. Property Taxes

Andover MA 2003 103,845 0.09% 0.12%
Avon MA 2003 10,000 0.07% 0.08%
Becket MA 2003 3,000 0.07% 0.09%
Bedford MA 2011 2 1,250,000 1.69% 2.76%
Belmont MA 2012 7 37,000 0.04% 0.06%
Beverly MA 2003 125,317 0.13% 0.21%
Billerica MA 2003 23,355 0.02% 0.03%
Boston MA 2012 33 19,402,506 0.58% 1.45%
Braintree MA 2003 845 0.00% 0.00%
Bridgewater MA 2003 422 0.00% 0.00%
Brimfield MA 2003 5,000 0.06% 0.11%
Brockton MA 2011 5 100,000 0.03% 0.10%
Brookline MA 2012 14 525,612 0.23% 0.36%
Cambridge MA 2008/2012 15 4,978,954 0.40% 1.81%
Canton MA 2003 163,464 0.26% 0.38%
Chatham MA 2003 41,585 0.13% 0.20%
Chelsea MA 2003 92,945 0.08% 0.33%
Chester MA 2003 1,930 0.05% 0.11%
Chicopee MA 2003 255,059 0.13% 0.49%
Concord MA 2011 1 1,000 0.00% 0.00%
Cummington MA 2003 2,000 0.09% 0.17%
Dedham MA 2011 25,800 0.03% 0.04%
Deerfield MA 2003 88,370 0.82% 1.25%
Duxbury MA 2003 1,500 0.00% 0.00%
Easthampton MA 2003 300 0.00% 0.00%
Easton MA 2009 1 20,000 0.03% 0.05%
Everett MA 2003 92,948 0.07% 0.15%
Fairhaven MA 2010 1 21,925 0.04% 0.10%
Fall River MA 2003 20,563 0.01% 0.04%
Falmouth MA 2003 500 0.00% 0.00%
Framingham MA 2011
Gill MA 2003 17,000 0.81% 1.10%
Great Barrington MA 2003 29,241 0.16% 0.22%
Groton MA 2012 208,178 0.67% 0.81%
Harvard MA 2003 17,328 0.08% 0.13%
Harwich MA 2003 21,491 0.05% 0.08%
Hopkinton MA 2003 10,000 0.02% 0.03%
Ipswich MA 2003 89,639 0.24% 0.41%
Lancaster MA 2003 2,500 0.02% 0.02%
Lee MA 2003 3,328 0.02% 0.04%
Lenox MA 2003 183,721 1.14% 1.83%
Lexington MA 2003 270,659 0.22% 0.29%
Longmeadow MA 2003 4,256 0.01% 0.01%
Lowell MA 2011 9 18,729 0.00% 0.02%
Lynn MA 2011 2 19,100 0.01% 0.02%
Marshfield MA 2003 25,940 0.04% 0.07%
Medford MA 2003 65,550 0.05% 0.10%
Methuen MA 2003 146,586 0.14% 0.29%
Middleton MA 2003 31,400 0.15% 0.20%
Milford MA 2003 112,117 0.15% 0.27%
Milton MA 2011 1 15,000 0.01% 0.03%
Monterey MA 2003 10,000 0.37% 0.45%
Needham MA 2010 1 47,000 0.03% 0.06%
Newbury MA 2003 3,000 0.02% 0.03%
Newton MA 2011/2012 2 377,000 0.11% 0.16%
Northfield MA 2003 17,442 0.31% 0.40%
Norton MA 2011 1 19,500 0.04% 0.08%
Norwood MA 2003 13,087 0.02% 0.03%
Palmer MA 2011 1 991 0.00% 0.01%
Peabody MA 2003 83,769 0.06% 0.12%
Pittsfield MA 2003 119,031 0.10% 0.23%
Plainfield MA 2003 500 0.03% 0.05%
Quincy MA 2011 4 837,703 0.29% 0.52%
Reading MA 2011 1 47,732 0.05% 0.09%
Rehoboth MA 2003 1,700 0.01% 0.01%
Richmond MA 2003 2,500 0.05% 0.08%
Rutland MA 2003 10,000 0.07% 0.12%
Shelburne MA 2003 900 0.02% 0.04%
Shutesbury MA 2003 7,885 0.16% 0.25%
Somerville MA 2011 5 60,246 0.03% 0.06%
Southampton MA 2003 1,000 0.01% 0.01%
Southborough MA 2003 78,168 0.23% 0.29%
Springfield MA 2012 1 250,000 0.04% 0.16%
Stockbridge MA 2003 49,000 0.67% 0.95%
Stoughton MA 2003 851 0.00% 0.00%
Sudbury MA 2003 27,000 0.04% 0.05%
Swampscott MA 2003 8,075 0.01% 0.02%
Templeton MA 2003 2,349 0.02% 0.04%
Tisbury MA 2011
Tyngsborough MA 2009
Tyringham MA 2003 1,500 0.15% 0.17%
Waltham MA 2003 12,094 0.01% 0.01%
Watertown MA 2012 1 5,260,089 4.85% 7.34%
Wellesley MA 2011 2 204,646 0.16% 0.23%
West Brookfield MA 2003 36,113 0.68% 0.92%
Westford MA 2003 37,350 0.04% 0.08%
Westminster MA 2003 10,972 0.07% 0.10%
Weymouth MA 2003 106,361 0.09% 0.17%
Williamstown MA 2003 237,540 1.50% 2.20%
Worcester MA 2011 3 606,063 0.09% 0.29%
Worthington MA 2003 6,700 0.25% 0.35%

Michael Weishan
4 years ago

And here from an article from the Worcester T&G, is an explanation of how stripping certain institutions, in this case Harvard from protection under the Dover Amendment works: “What Cambridge does with legislation exempting it from the Dover Amendment,” Moore said, “Cambridge is then allowed to zone its city and say educational uses are not allowed here, even religious uses … what they have done is used it in a limited way. They’ve established 11 different overlay zones, and they said in those zones, an educational institution cannot expand without a special permit from the city. It’s a way of putting the brake on the expansion of colleges in residential neighborhoods.”

4 years ago

Thanks for the info on how repealing the Dover Amendment can be used to restrict non-profit growth.
I am curious about the year designations beside each town in your listing of PILOT contributions above.. The Southborough number is labelled 2003 while the Groton number you reference is labelled 2012. Are the dollar comparisons valid?

4 years ago

Please… help those of us who are in generational houses stay in Southborough! PILOT isn’t the only issue, though it’s a big one. What about the over-extended funding for the schools? Let them make due with what they have and stop giving them more each year! I’m sure other communities have done it! Don’t make my family, and so many other families who are in homes that have served generations of Southboroughites (?) leave because of the ridiculous taxes! For almost $10k a year, what do I get that I actually use? Nothing. I pay for my water, don’t have town sewerage, don’t have town trash pickup… I get that I have silent “protection” from the fire and police services that are waiting for my call, and I appreciate that and their service.

Why is it that other communities can offer their residents much more for their tax $$ while charging less tax $$?

I’ll para-quote former selectman Bill Boland as to what’s wrong with the thinking in Southborough. My question was, “Where do you stand on so many Southboro seniors and “lifers” having to sell their homes because they can no longer afford the taxes?”

The answer, though I can’t remember it verbatim, was to the effect of, “Yeah, but they’re selling their homes for how much more than they paid for them? They paid pennies on the dollar back then.”

How fair is that? They don’t want to sell for a profit- they want to die in the town they helped build! So do I!

Rant over.

4 years ago
Reply to  Chuck

Sincere question: What other communities offer their residents much more for their tax $ while charging less tax $$?

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