NSTAR offers to be white knight

Intimates interest in purchase of 166 acres of Weston Nurseries land as buffer to gas facility

11 other entities have replied to Hopkinton's Request for Interest ~ LUSC meeting

by Chris Crawford

July 20, 2005 – The community organization HOPE (Hopkintonians Organized to Preserve and Enhance) hosted a meeting between citizens and members of the Land Use Study Committee (LUSC) tonight at 7:00 at the First Congregational Church. HOPE and the LUSC held the meeting to inform about various aspects of the sale of 615 acres of Weston Nurseries land. The two leaders of HOPE, Liisa Jackson and Mavis O’Leary, are also members of the LUSC.

     Last Friday, the LUSC received a very large and very diverse selection of responses to their RFI (Request for Interest; See May 25th article), which solicited to parties who would likely be interested in use of the Weston Nurseries land. LUSC Member Brian Morrison stated, “We’re in the process of winnowing through those responses right now.”

     Liisa Jackson gave a short welcome, and then gave the stand to Brian Morrison to give an overview of the LUSC’s processing of the sale. Mr. Morrison listed the Committee’s accomplishments and policies, presented a map of the land, and described the benefits and costs to the private individual and the public that different uses will entail. He stated, “ What we need to answer is: How do we want to grow? How do we want this area to look in the future?” Final questions whose answer will affect the Town’s decision the most. SEE MR. Morrison's presentation (PDF).

      The reason the town has any say in the sale is because the land has been granted special tax status, Chapter 61a, due to its agricultural use. In return, the town has the right of first refusal to purchase the land, in a 120 day window, if a viable offer is put in front of the Mezitt's.

     Mr. Morrison explained how a COCS (Cost of Community Service) study, a method of weighing private benefits against public costs, will become the core guide in the eventual decision of the LUSC. Such studies examine a certain development or type of development and give their net dollar cost to the community per net dollar revenue to the community. When the cost is greater than the revenue, the development is described as ‘revenue-negative,’ a “net drain on the Town’s finances,” Mr. Morrison said.

     “The first of the LUSC’s two primary goals,” Mr. Morrison repeated tonight, “is that any development is revenue-positive.”

     He next presented national average COCS data from the American Farmland Trust. These data show commercial/industrial development and open space carrying small costs compared to their revenue, while residential development carries a greater cost than its revenue. Mr. Morrison had to show the national data because, as he explains, Consultant Judy Barrett is still working on a specific COCS for Hopkinton. “It looks to be generally close to the national average,”

     LUSC Member John Coolidge clarified further. He stated that a COCS study 8 years ago gave residential costs at $1.15 per $1 residential revenue. “What we have seen change over the last 10 years, as we all know, is the demographic of the town,” he said, “We now see families coming in with 3 to 4 children. We’ll see this driving residential costs up.”

     Brian Morrison summed up his presentation, saying, “Used carefully, COCS data can help towns plan carefully.” He also stated that there is serious interest from developers, and the eventual plan will probably include parts of different developers’ proposals. He closed his presentation by asking for the input of the citizens. “You folks ultimately decide how this unfolds, and I know that’s why you’re all sitting here waiting to ask questions.”

     He then gave the stand to Board of Selectmen Chairman and LUSC Member Eric Sonnett and LUSC Chairman Finley Perry to answer questions from the audience.

     The first question, posed by Planning Board Member Sandy K. Altamura, was whether the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, who owns both a storage facility and gas main abutting the property, has asked for safety buffers (in case of a terrorist attack) that may limit development.

     Eric Sonnett answered, “After 9/11 I asked: What if some deranged person wanted to blow up this plant?” His response in 2001 was to walk the site with State Representative Paul Loscocco and the Chiefs of Police and Fire. Mr. Sonnett stated that the site walk had satisfied his concerns, and those of Representative Loscocco and the Police and Fire Chiefs.

     In order for an explosion to occur at the facility, explosives must explode at a very specific point in the storage facility’s processing, with very specific atmospheric conditions, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Officials had explained to Mr. Sonnett. Otherwise there would only be a leak of natural gas. “For example, if you fired a missile at it, it would not explode,” Mr. Sonnett said.

     Mr. Hoffman of Ashland’s Comprehensive Planning Committee next commented. He urged the LUSC to consider the effect of traffic on his town. “The traffic from this area has effects beyond the confines of the Town of Hopkinton, and I ask your Town to keep that in consideration.”

     Chairman Perry asked Mr. Hoffman to point out all of the members of Ashland’s town government in the audience, pointing out a large group including two selectmen, members of their Comprehensive Planning Committee, Open Space Committee, and CPA.

     A Hopkinton citizen next asked about a specific breakdown of responses to the RFI. Chairman Perry listed them, including 9 individual entities interested in “master-planning type projects,” such as various kinds of development, 3 conservation groups, two farming groups, and NStar.

     Eric Sonnett later explained that the 9 master-planning entities range highly in revenue-positivity, from draining millions from the town to producing tens of millions. He listed some details: there are two assisted-living proposals, several “neo-urbanist” developments such as multi-family structures and garden apartments, different types of commercial centers, and golf courses.

     “And a significant open-space buffer,” Brian Morrison added.

     Later, a man asked whether any proposals considered a historic railroad bed on the land as a trail, a design frequently put in place by groups such as Rails for Trails.

     Mr. Sonnett replied, “The more sophisticated proposals have trails in them. These people proposing certainly want the town to like them, so they’re putting in things we’ll like.” Both Mr. Sonnett and Chairman Perry later remarked that they were amazed at how much the interested parties understood Hopkinton.

     A man in the audience who owns property in Hudson under Chapter 61 tax exemptions commented that he had made a large amount of money in the recapture of taxes. He had received 10% of the price of the property in recaptured taxes. He asked if the town could make money in the same way.

     Mr. Sonnett replied that the recaptured money is rather insignificant compared to the predicted sale price of the land, only around $200,000. “To be frank, we had thought early on that we would have millions to play with, but that turns out not to be true,” he related.

     John Coolidge explained further, “This land is not valued as developable land such as yours in Hudson may be."

     A Hopkinton citizen next asked, “Do you know where Weston Nurseries is in their process?”

     Chairman Perry responded, “The rumor mill is rife,” but he could not talk specifically because Weston Nurseries “is acting quite privately at this point.” The Mezitt brothers, the owners of the Nurseries, are currently receiving offers privately, and their lawyers will not let the LUSC in on information about these offers.

     Another citizen voiced her concern about pesticides and herbicides on the land. She asked if there had been tests done.

     Chairman Perry replied that he knew of Beals & Thomas being hired by Weston Nurseries for such tests, however the Town government does not have any information. He commented, “It’s obviously something we need to be cognizant of.”

     The citizen next asked when the Town would be privy to that testing information.

     Chairman Perry responded, “We don’t know, right now we don’t even have the rights to go on the land. It’s private property. But once an offer is made, we have rights to everything.”

     The evening ended with an extensive dialogue over how the town will go about purchasing the Weston Nurseries land.

     Eric Sonnett explained how the town might raise the money to pay for the purchase. “There’s one way, and that’s raising money through taxes. But part of the offer is that the proposal is revenue positive, and therefore it could help pay in the long run. If we’re real lucky we’ll have partners that will shoulder the cost,” he said.

     Finley Perry explained in more detail. He described the Town’s options as including taking the cost and offsetting it with raised taxes and creating a public-private partnership out of the offer. Short-term borrowings are also a possibility. “As we initiate sophisticated planning with a sophisticated partner, this land will eventually become more valuable than it was,” he concluded.

     Eric Sonnett addressed citizens’ anxiety over the amount of detail involved. “The bottom line is that there is much left to be done. But the RFI has put us in the next step,” he said.

     Ending the evening was a question from LUSC and HOPE Member Mavis O’Leary of whether any other town had encountered a situation like this.

     Eric Sonnett replied, “No they have not, not on this scale. We’re modeling some of our planning for public-private partnerships off of a situation in Lincoln, but otherwise this would be something other communities will model themselves after.”

    Among the other more well known entities expressing an interest are Pulte Home Corp., Lincoln Property Company, Savage Green Development, Toll Brothers [Hopkinton Highlands], and KSS Realty Partners [Maspenock Woods].

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