Friday, April 16, 1999
FinCom reverses decision, supports Wang-Coombs
In an eleventh-hour face-off, the finance committee bowed to the will of the selectmen and voted last Wednesday to recommend the purchase of the Wang-Coombs property, reversing its position taken just two days earlier. The FinCom did not capitulate without drawing blood of its own, however, because as part of the deal they forced the selectmen to cut from the Warrant the municipal land committee's proposal to establish a serial bonding program to facilitate the purchase of municipal land.
Moreover, because withdrawal of the serial bonding proposal left the conservation commission without any funds to investigate and possibly pursue new property coming onto the market, the selectmen voted to add yet another override question to the ballot, seeking $100,000 for this purpose.
From sublime to ridiculous
Convening in the Corey dining room directly after the uncontentious Special Town Meeting, five of the seven finance committee members (chair Charlie Parker, Simon Platt, Tom Bilotta, Phil Conti and Tony Allison), the entire board of selectmen, town administrator David DeManche, town counsel Paul DeRensis and more than a dozen interested citizens collected around an elementary school lunch table.
Clearly stunned that the finance committee had rejected both Wang-Coombs and the serial bonding proposal on April 5, selectmen asked the FinCom for an explanation. "We asked you to pick one and you picked neither," said selectman Doug Stevenson. FinCom member Bilotta spoke up most forcefully saying that there is just too much on the Warrant which, if approved, would have a shocking impact on taxes.
"The town hasn't paid a dime for projects we've done in recent years," said Billotta, referring to the fact that significant town projects, including the school Grant Building and the Banta-Davis playing fields, have not yet been bonded and that the real increase won't be seen until this fall's tax bills. Harking back to the dark times of 1990 when a similar scenario unfolded, Billotta warned, "We will deplete the willingness of the town to pay for an override," so that extra tax revenues will not be available when really needed.
Parker added that discomfort had been building over time and that the decision not to recommend either project must be put in context. "Every town department needs an override; we are concerned with the low level of free cash. We are suggesting that the maximum number of items be moved from short-term debt to long-term because interest rates are not getting any lower." In short, the FinCom dug in its heels in the name of fiscal responsibility.
But is the short-term approach advocated by the FinCom really the road to fiscal responsibility, or is it just the opposite? Speaking on behalf of the land conservation measures on the Warrant, selectman Vivian Chaput stated, "At Town Meeting voters will have everything in black and white. They will see that the overrides (most of which go to the school) are fueled by growth. Property preservation stems growth." Selectman Michael Fitzgerald added, "We are frequently criticized for not being forward-looking enough, but this is just what the municipal land committee has done with serial bonding."
DeRensis added his perspective in describing another town which, after the same discussion, removed a bonding proposal from their Warrant only to have a proposal for a larger amount placed on the Warrant by petition and pass overwhelmingly on the theory that land will be more expensive in the future. Selectman Burt Rubenstein, who is also on the municipal land committee, said, "Part of the reason we are paying a lot for Wang-Coombs is that we didn't have serial bonding five years ago."
Carlisle Land Trust board member Wayne Davis, also mystified by the FinCom position, pointed to evidence that the town supports long-range conservation efforts and asked, "Did you take into account the 'Growing Pains' report on the cost of development, the fact that the town has an Open Space and Recreation Plan, the fact that the town was willing to buy O'Rourke without any assurance that any money would be reimbursed and the fact that the O'Rourke purchase price is coming back?" Parker stated that all of these items had been considered but reiterated that the FinCom had a discomfort with the cumulative impact of all projects on the Warrant.
Davis also defended the purchase price of the Wang-Coombs property, which comes out to approximately $180,000 per buildable lot after taking into account a $320,000 grant expected under the agricultural preservation restriction program. This price is well below the fair market value in the mid-$300,000s realtors place on similar lots in Carlisle, according to a builder in the audience. Davis added that the same appraiser who provided the valuation for the O'Rourke property will provide an appraisal on Wang-Coombs by the end of April.
Land trust concerns
Specifically referring to the Wang-Coombs proposal that has been in the works for months with the knowledge, if not the tacit approval of the FinCom, Ballantine noted that the unanimous rejection of the project by the FinCom last week felt like a last-minute betrayal. Ballantine reminded the FinCom that private citizens have put up the $250,000 deposit on the property and that this money may be at risk if the purchase does not go through.
This comment sparked a fiery discussion. Tim Eliassen of the land trust said, "You have to think very hard about the future of getting the Carlisle Land Trust and private citizens to step up and provide funds if you pull the plug now." FinCom members denied that they had ever given approval of the purchase even though the selectmen had voted to assign the town's right of first refusal to the land trust in December. Stating that Billotta had been too polite in referring to this as a "process problem," FinCom member Platt said, "If a commitment has been made by a town board without voter approval, we are put in a box."
"Can Wang-Coombs be the first project under serial bonding?" asked Parker. With a June deadline under the purchase and sale agreement the timing would not work, said Ballantine.
When it became clear that the FinCom would not recommend both Wang-Coombs and serial bonding, selectmen decided between the two. "One is being held hostage for the other," said Rubenstein.
"I would like to see overwhelming support for Wang-Coombs and the Carlisle Land Trust," said Chaput. Stevenson and Ballantine also opted for Wang-Coombs over serial bonding. Fitzgerald refused to cut the municipal land committee's proposal from the Warrant, reasoning that the proposal is a plan for controlling development. Rubenstein, one of the authors of the serial bonding plan, also opted to keep it on the Warrant. The majority prevailed, however, and the town will not get the chance to vote on the serial bonding proposal at this Town Meeting.
Rubenstein upheld the flag and noted that serial bonding is "not dead, just resting," and that the proposal will likely rise again at a future Town Meeting.
Without serial bonding on the Warrant, the FinCom voted to recommend purchase of Wang-Coombs.
Noting that the conservation commission had been relying on a portion of the serial bonding proposal to replenish the conservation fund, Ballantine urged the board to consider adding a Warrant article to provide ConsCom with money to investigate potential conservation property. On the advice of town counsel, the only way to fund this item would be as an override. The board arrived at the amount of $100,000 by estimating the down payments and associated costs of purchasing two conservation parcels.
Selectmen were also split on whether to add this item to the Warrant. Chaput, Ballantine and Rubenstein voted to add and recommend this item. Fitzgerald voted nay on both counts because the override would cost taxpayers money this year as opposed to the serial bonding proposal which may not cost anything this year. Stevenson felt that the fund is not necessary, noting that the town was able to buy O'Rourke and preserve its interest in Wang-Coombs without the fund.
Again, the majority prevailed and the conservation fund article will be recommended by the selectmen at Town Meeting, and a separate override question will appear on the ballot.
Investors'deposit at stake
In an interview after the meeting, Carlisle Land Trust member Wayne Davis, who was instrumental in soliciting the deposit for the Wang-Coombs purchase, clarified the process which led up to the current dilemma. Under Chapter 61A of the Massachusetts General Laws, said Davis, when a landowner enters into a contract that takes the property out of agricultural or conservation use the town has a right of first refusal which lasts for 120 days. The town assigned its right of first refusal for the Wang-Coombs property to the Carlisle Land Trust in December. The land trust exercised this right and stepped into the purchase and sale agreement as the buyer. The purchase and sale agreement required a $250,000 deposit which 11 private citizens volunteered. Even though the right to purchase the 43-acre parcel is a valuable asset which the land trust could sell, Davis explained that the deposit is at risk if the town does not purchase the property because under Chapter 61A, once a town exercises its right of first refusal, at least 51 percent of the property must be used for conservation or agricultural purposes.
Davis emphasized that the citizens who put up the deposit understood that the transaction was subject to approval at Town Meeting. However, before any money was delivered, the land trust did its due diligence and tested the political climate and concluded, based on the fact that last fall the selectmen, FinCom and ConsCom all backed the transfer of the town's right of first refusal to the land trust, that the risk was reasonable. Because of the risk involved, the land trust considered structuring the deal so that the depositors could receive some financial benefit if the purchase succeeded. Davis stressed that the depositors insisted that the deal be structured so that they would receive no benefit except saving the land.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito