Friday, February 13, 2004
FinCom proposes alternative financing plan for Parcel A
On February 5 the Finance Committee (FinCom), joined by Town Treasurer Larry Barton and Town Administrator Madonna McKenzie revisited the Benfield property purchase from the FinCom perspective. With audience member Alan Carpenito later joining in the discussion, it was a lively and sometimes emotional session that ended close to midnight.
Tremendous time pressure
on land purchase
In January, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to ask the town to purchase 45 acres, Parcel A, of the Benfield land on South Street at a cost of $1.985 million. The purchase is proposed to be financed with funds from the Conservation Protection Act (CPA) surtax. A 21-acre portion of the 45-acre parcel may be designated for multi-use purposes, including affordable housing and active recreation.
A Special Town Meeting has been called for March 23, where a two-thirds vote is required to move forward. To meet this deadline, the FinCom and other town committees are scrambling to develop reasoned recommendations.
Creative two-step financing plan
In its advisory role, FinCom is expected to opine on the purchase from a financing perspective. FinCom Chair Lisa Jensen-Fellows opened the discussion by reporting that an information request list had been presented to the Conservation Protection Act Committee (CPAC) that included valuations, housing costs, recreational field estimates, etc., and CPAC had responded. "I've got more information on 40B housing than I know what to do with," said Jensen-Fellows. The problem, however, is that the data being generated are really "guess-estimates" because it will take "a year" to develop a solid plan.
In response to the obvious need for more time, Jensen-Fellows described an alternative two-step purchase/financing plan developed by Barton to give the town the time to prepare a proper development plan for the Benfield property. Under the two-step plan, the town would initially buy the land without CPA funds. A definitive plan would be prepared over the next 12 months, and if the proposed uses were allowed under the Community Preservation Act, CPA funds could then be applied. Otherwise, the town could choose to re-sell the property, something that could not be done once CPA funds were involved.
The merit of this approach is that it allows the April deadline to be met, while giving the various town committees adequate time to prepare a development plan, and giving citizens a better understanding of what will happen with the land. It also does not lock the CPAC into a $2+ million commitment that may turn out to be inappropriate for the fund.
Jensen-Fellows indicated that this alternative had been reviewed with the Board of Selectman, but no response has been received.
A citizen voices concerns — tip of the iceberg?
At this point , Carpenito, who had been the sole audience member all evening, asked to speak. Carpenito expressed his dissatisfaction with the way the whole process was being handled. The purchase, he felt, was being "railroaded through" to the detriment of South Street citizens. South Street, he pointed out, was "closed at both ends" and unable to handle the traffic brought on by "30 low-income housing units, let alone the hundreds of cars traveling to the proposed playing fields."
He asked if he could read a letter from his neighbor, long-time resident Inga MacRae, which claimed that her family had an unwritten understanding with the Benfields that no development would take place on the land, which is now Parcel A.
Jenson-Fellows, while acknowledging Carpenito's issues, explained that FinCom was not making the decision to purchase, just the best way to finance it. Carpenito went on to question the financial merits of the purchase. "Why spend $2 million to buy 45 acres, when the land was already gifted for conservation," he asked.
In reacting to Carpenito's comments, FinCom member Deb Belanger reminded fellow members that last week she had asked if there were any issues, e.g., disgruntled abutters, and was told that there were none. Now, she expressed concern that others like Carpenito would start to surface once all the uncertainties (due to the lack of a definitive development plan) would come to light.
Pursue two-step as preferred financing alternative (if feasible)
FinCom member Thornton Ash expressed frustration at the limited information and time the committee had to develop a reasoned recommendation regarding the land financing. While he was "impressed" that Jenson-Fellows "was prepared to plow through all the housing information" he questioned whether this was the right way to go about it. More time was needed to develop a plan.
The two-step financing plan provided the needed time, and a discussion ensued regarding how strongly, if at all, to recommend it. The sentiment of FinCom was that it might be the most responsible approach in that it preserved maximum flexibility for the town. After discussion, Belanger proposed that FinCom recommend this approach to the Board of Selectmen. With FinCom member Dave Trask dissenting, FinCom agreed to informally recommend the two-step approach as the preferred financing plan, with Jensen-Fellows agreeing to call Selectman Vivian Chaput.
Before the meeting adjourned, McKenzie pointed out that purchasing the land without CPA moneys would likely result in serious time delays and introduce a whole new review and approval process.
© 2004 The