Annual Town Meeting opens in ten days. So, it’s time to start digging into more of the Articles voters will be asked to decide on.
As I’ve previously noted, there are five Community Preservation Act Articles this year. Yesterday, the Community Advocate covered one of them — Article 19: St. Mark’s Church Bell Tower Renovation.
The stone clock tower, built in 1891 as a donation from Old Colony Railroad Corporation President Charles Choate, requires repairs because of a number of problems. These include cracking mortar joints, fracturing stones and cracking on stones both inside and outside the tower, according to a 2017 evaluation by Spencer, Sullivan, & Vogt, Preservation Architects.
The Article asks Southborough to commit $300K from CPA funds* to support the project.
At Town Meeting, voters will hear that the Advisory Committee voted against supporting the Article. Prior to the official vote, Chair Kathy Cook told selectmen that members voiced opposition to the Article based on the possibility of litigation over the separation of church and state.
The Community Advocate’s article explains that proponents and Town Counsel argue the church vs state issue is irrelevant since the focus is on preservation of an historic landmark that doesn’t include religious symbolism. You can read more about that here.
Advisory member Jason Malinowski clarified for Cook and selectmen that he had a different reason for opposing the project. He opined that it benefits too small a population. He argued that CPA funds should be used for projects that are for broader good.
The Board of Selectmen put off providing a formal opinion until Town Meeting. At an April Meeting, then-Selectman Brian Shea** raised a general concern over the five CPA projects.
Shea said the unintended consequence of delaying Articles last year is that new projects popped up. He pointed out that the matching funds from the state for CPA projects has gone down over the years. With more of the share coming from Southborough funds, he opined that projects should be prioritized. He cautioned that they may come under heavier scrutiny this year.
Community Preservation Committee Vice Chair Andrew Mills responded that the lower match is due to the higher number of communities participating in the CPA. As for worrying about the pipeline, he assured they had been reaching out to other departments and boards about future needs. He said they hadn’t heard anything that would suggest they need to hold back some funds for other projects.
In terms of funding this particular project, the CA writes:
The total cost of the renovation is estimated at $750,000, of which the church’s parishioners have pledged more than $350,000.
For more history on the tower project, click here. For St. Mark’s website dedicated to answering the public’s questions about the project, click here.
Last week, the Southborough Trails Committee held an info session on its CPA project. You can check that out here. For all of my posts related to Annual Town Meeting, click here.
*Through the Community Preservation Act, the Town collects surcharges, partially matched by the state for the fund. It’s a set amount that doesn’t vary depending on the projects funded.
That means, while it’s not free money, approving a project doesn’t increase your taxes. At least not directly.
Opponents of specific past projects in the past have argued they would reduce the coffers for other projects. That can mean that a project down the road that could have been funded by the CPA would instead require funding through the Town’s operating/capital budgets.
So, a vote on spending CPA funds is about deciding how much to dedicate to a specific project vs leave available in accounts for future projects.
**Shea chose not to run for re-election to his seat. His seat will be filled by Andrew Dennington based on the results of yesterday’s Town election. Dennington was on the Advisory Committee when it voted not to support the Article.
Updated (5/13/21 8:38 am): St. Mark’s parish shared this link to the website they dedicated to answering questions about the project.
At the very least, without an independent official town inspection of work needed and estimated costs, no town money should go towards this project. $750,000 is a crazy big number for something that to the lay persons eye looks to be in perfect shape. It’s not like it is some run down thing that will look great when done like we’ve seen happen with the Burnett house. We literally won’t be getting anything for our money.
I disagree that we wouldn’t be getting anything for our money. While it’s true that the tower looks good from afar, the main issues are with the mortar joints. Parts of the tower will need to be completely taken apart and reconstructed, which is why it is such an expensive endeavor. By not repairing it today, we will end up with an even more expensive project down the road or the tower will fall apart. The tower is a visible part of the town center. We feel an obligation to preserve this historic landmark.
I’m all for saving property, however, my parish, St. Matthew’s renovated and expanded our church. It was paid for by donations, not CPA funds. I drive by the Burnett mansion and shudder when I see the atrocious gate and sidewalk clock. Nope, don’t won’t to go down that spending road again
I’m a parishioner at St. Marks and I worked on the capital campaign for the tower project. I encourage folks to look at the website http://www.stmarkstower.org, where we’ve answered questions about the project scope, separation of church and state, and the legality of using CPC funds for structures that sit on church property
Thanks for sharing the link. I’ll add it to the post for readers who don’t look at the comments.
I think Malinowski is wrong. The beautiful center of our town benefits us all and creates the wonderful first impression we’ve all grown accustomed to. To allow the Tower to fall into further disrepair only increases future repair costs and the likelihood that the parish will not be able to handle that higher cost on its own. We certainly don’t want some future building inspector to hang Condemned signs all over such a prominent structure in our Town Center. I think this is a very appropriate use of Community Preservation funds…
Let’s instead use the Community Preservation funds for more sidewalks please. Let’s get every street sidewalked.
I don’t know if it falls within the allowed scope for the CPA funds, but it’s an interesting thought.
Kevin, I would like sidewalks, too, however, CPC funding cannot be used for that project. Here is a link that lists allowed projects under the CPC: https://www.communitypreservation.org/allowable-uses
Sidewalks may not fit the bill under Historic Preservation but I think a good case can be made that they could fall under either recreation or open space.
About 20 years ago our neighborhood got a sidewalk on Pine Hill Road as part of a development mitigation. It has been a real asset and lots of people use it for their daily walks.
The recreation aspect is the reason that I didn’t assert that they don’t fit the fund. I’ve never seen it discussed, and I couldn’t find any detailed criteria on what can/can’t qualify. In the past I do recall mention that certain elements of athletic fields couldn’t be funded, but I don’t recall the details.
Al, its flat out illegal to use CPA money for sidewalks. See the court case here:
Thank you for sharing that!
Thank you Beth for everything you do to keep the voters informed! I followed Michele’s link to the tower project website which in turn links to Mr. Cipriano’s legal opinion. But I couldn’t find the original application for funding, perhaps I am just missing it. Do you know where readers can view the original application? Thank you!
St Marks needs to repair their own property without assistance from the Town and taxpayers in any form or fashion. Anyone wishing to contribute to the repair of the church can make a private donation.
In light of this, we should focus the efforts / funds toward our trail system then instead! The boroughs loop trail and a proposed bike path under 495 would seem to suffice the requirements of using CPA funds.
Where I live in Rockport MA, CP funds have gone toward renovating at least two church towers, also toward our historic Art Association building. Like this tower, these are recognized historic landmarks. The price tag appears steep, but this is stone masonry, not carpentry. People in Rockport understand that we will lose our beautiful landmarks unless we all pitch in to save them. How will the public feel in the future driving or walking by, seeing a pile of rubble instead of a majestic tower? As with many maintenance projects, the cost will only increase with time and the advancement of underlying structural issues. The tower’s mosaic of colors is a work of art and craftsmanship available for all to see. Please act now and save it for present and future generations to enjoy.
There are a number of reasons why this proposal should be defeated.
1. There is a large institution with the same name and religious affiliation in the neighborhood which recently received several million our tax dollars that should pony up the funds. If they are not willing to pay why should we?
2. Any way you cut it this is a subsidy for a religious institution. Other parishes and congregations in town take care of their own facilities. St. Marks need to do so as well. The government should not be in the business of maintaining a building which almost exclusively used for religious purposes.
3. Southborough has a diverse religious population. How can we tax Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, non believers, and others in support of a Christian institution.
4. If we approve this we are likely to get sued. The suit will cost a lot of money and Southborough’s track record in court is very very poor. Suits may be good for lawyers but not taxpayers.
It’s an historic landmark. The denomination or religious affiliation is irrelevant. It is seen by everyone, prominently visible up a hill on Main Street, and part of the town’s history, culture and character.
Al, thanks for your comments. I want to clarify a few things and welcome your return commentary. This is a really important discussion.
1. St. Mark’s School is not affiliated in any way with St. Mark’s Church.
2. The reason St. Mark’s Church is requesting CPC funds is that the Tower has a preservation restriction through the Mass Historical Commission. The preservation restriction with MHC compels St. Mark’s Church to seek grant funding from all available sources, including Southborough CPC.
3. This is not an additional tax, but request for existing CPC funds to be used for historical preservation only. The tower fits the criteria for historic preservation. As a side note, the Burnett property includes a chapel with a cross (a Christian symbol) so those CPC funds are contributing to a Christian building (although not an organization).
4. In March 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Town of Acton could award CPA preservation grants for religious institutions only if they met a narrow three-part test. Southborough’s town counsel, Aldo A. Cipriano, reported that the St. Mark’s Tower Preservation met all three parts, and could be favorably considered for a CPA preservation grant.
You may get sued but it will be thrown out before the town even needs to answer the complaint. The SJC has dealt with this issue and determined it didn’t violate the establishment clause because it’s for preservation and any other religious organizations in a similar situation would be permitted to seek the funds.
Al, I’m not going to opine on my position on this article, given that I’m both a current Advisory member as well as a member of the church in question. I will, however, point out arguments (either pro or con) that are invalid.
Arguments 2 and 3 get to the religious matter. The Massachusetts Supreme Court has already ruled You are effectively trying to override their ruling with your own opinion. Either take this to the US Supreme Court or accept that this is not a religious use.
Argument 4 – you need to look at the data, which effectively proves that towns are not being sued for spending CPA money on such projects.
Argument 1 – I agree. In fact, I have repeatedly asked the church to go to the institution you mentioned to obtain funding. They have not. It boggles the mind.
This is the question that voters should ask themselves: is this project the highest possible use for the Town’s limited CPA funds? That answer should drive the vote.
In Rockport MA we voted CP funds to repair two churches – the Unitarian and Congregational. We encountered many of the same objections. What comes to mind when we think of a small town? Landscape and architecture, and that architectural value is most prominently displayed in churches. They define the character and history of a town. Historic buildings come under the proper use of CP funds, and benefit everyone, regardless of denomination or no denomination at all. Many of us of other religions or no religion at all voted to approve the funds to preserve historic values. No one sued or got sued over this proper use of CP funding.
Mr Hamilton makes a single good point. As chair of the Historical Commission, I am fully in support of the article, but exactly where is St. Marks in all of this? This is their Founder’s church! In fact, St Mark’s wouldn’t be there at all if not for Joseph Burnett’s desire to bring Episcopalian education to Southborough. I would presume that we would see a substantial contribution on the books from St. Marks before Town Meeting.
Hi Michael. You make a good point, and I would like to clarify. I worked on the St. Mark’s Church year-long capital campaign. All sources of gifts were explored, including reaching out directly to St. Mark’s School, Fay School, legacy families, and other sources of grants.
While St. Mark’s School and St. Mark’s Church share both a founder and a name, they remain independent entities that separated from each other well over 100 years ago.
If St Mark’s gets money for this, can St Matthews and Pilgrim Church apply for funds they already spent on renovations? I think Pilgrim Church saved their steeple with one of the renovations.
The CPA fund has been nothing but hassle since we started it. How about we dissolve the fund and send the money back to the taxpayers. I have a driveway that is need of repair. Oh, wait a minute – maybe I can apply for CPA funds.
The CPA funds originate as a part of our real estate (property) tax payments.
It is up to us, the town taxpayers, to determine how CPA (our) money is to be spent.
This underscores the importance of attending the Annual Town Meeting in order to VOTE
on articles to determine spending for today and tomorrow (read: future taxation).
You can bet that supporters WILL be present. If you’re not on of them, YOU need to attend or it’s a done deal.
ATTEND to VOTE!!!
As Mr. Weishan and many others have pointed out, while I am not debating that the bell tower is nice, and may need repair, I don’t believe the funds should come from the taxpayers at all. As Michael noted, why isn’t St. Marks the school stepping up to the plate, and even if they don’t, just like with my own personal property, why wouldn’t they get a loan? If I understand things correctly, just like the school, they aren’t paying taxes, yet want to use our tax money. I just don’t see this benefiting enough of the towns people, like an infrastructure project or other more needed item that costs $300k would. Add in the possibility of a lawsuit, which as others noted would just cost the towns people more money, and I hope we vote this down at the town meeting.
As I’ve said, I am not saying it doesn’t need to be repaired, I am just echoing what others have said, which is that the town shouldn’t be paying for it, and that private donors or a bank loan should help make up the shortfall.
As a congregant of Pilgrim Church I can say that we do not need to use CPA funds to fund the St. Mark’s steeple. Pilgrim did a long term capital plan for the steeple and other needed renovation while also licensing cell tower space to offset the enormous costs. Pilgrim has a much smaller congregation than St. Mark’s does, but still managed to find a way to wholly fund their not inexpensive steeple repair.
This is not a good us of CPA funds for many reasons people above me have already pointed out, but I wanted to accentuate the point that Pilgrim did it without asking for CPA funds.
St. Mark’s isn’t going anywhere, we don’t need to worry about it’s history, because if we don’t fund it they will.
Sean, according to a Pilgrim Church document from January 2014, page 7, the steeple restoration project cost $75,000. The document states:
“Our Stewardship campaign incorporates two components of ongoing annual costs and the steeple repair. Our operating budget goal is $350,000. In addition, we will need to raise an additional $75,000 to pay for the steeple repair. The ultimate pledge goal for the 2014 Stewardship Campaign is $425,000. On November 24, 2013 we shared a Stewardship Brunch together with demonstration of the major repairs needed to the steeple. Repairing the steeple is our generation’s declaration of how grateful we are for this beautiful spiritual place.”
I found the document here: https://dokument.pub/the-spire-pilgrim-congregational-church-flipbook-pdf-y-6021b8657df2f.html
It appears that is the total cost to repair the steeple. If that is accurate, it is ten times less than the clock tower restoration project. St. Mark’s Church parishioners have committed more than $350,000 to the clock tower restoration project. These are donations beyond annual pledges for operating costs.
St. Mark’s Church also sought to offset costs by licensing cell phone tower space, however the clock tower isn’t tall enough to support it. My point is that the parish has worked hard to find ways to fund this restoration project and asking for CPC funds is not taken lightly.
Finally, in response to your point that Pilgrim has a much smaller congregation than St. Mark’s – I think you are mistaken. Pilgrim has their pledging stats up online for 2020, which shows 150 pledgers last year. St. Mark’s had fewer than 100.
Just a couple of clarifications:
As Michele mentions above, despite its financial stability, the school has nothing to do with the church other than their original names. St Mark’s School seems to have zero obligations towards the church.
As Barbara Goll mentions above, CPA funds have been used successfully in other towns for work on historically significant churches; so it seems to me the continued mention of lawsuits is moot.
My guess is St. Mark’s School has contributed the same amount to the Bell Tower restoration as they have to the Town of Southborough for Pilot payments. That would be $0. Oh sure, every once in a while they may fund some equipment or provide some free ice time, but they don’t come close to covering the loss of property tax dollars or the amount the Town spends on education for the faculty and staff children.
A quick check of the FY 2020 St Mark’s School Annual Report shows that in addition to the hefty tuition, generous donors contributed a record-setting $22,249,490. Let that sink in.
How come people on this post repeatedly fail to grasp that St. Mark’s School and St. Mark’s Church are completely unrelated to each other. St. Mark’s School as about as much to do with the church as Fay School has to do with St. Anne’s, ie other than some staff and students worshiping there, no connection exists!
Mr Weishan wants to take money from academic non-profits and give money to religious non-profits. Doesn’t seem right.