SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 18, 2013

Hamilton eyes $4M property

Aquila Farm includes manor house, stables on 80 acres

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff writer

---- — HAMILTON — Town officials are weighing options to buy a prominent, 80-acre property as a possible site for senior housing, playing fields or new schools.

Aquila Farm Equestrian Estate at 641 Bay Road is under agreement with a private developer who wants to purchase the $4 million property, but the town has the right of first refusal because of its agricultural designation. The designation has allowed the property to be assessed and taxed at a lower rate.

If the town passes on the opportunity, the property will likely by subdivided into six equestrian-themed homes, officials said.

The town has 120 days to make a decision to purchase the property, which is owned by Deidre Pirie. Selectmen have put together a group composed of members of the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Conservation Commission and school officials to study the matter.

The property includes a five-bedroom manor house built in 2002, a guest house, multiple stables and an outdoor riding arena. Pirie, who has owned the property since 1960, declined comment when reached by phone.

The farm has been in operation since the 1750s and currently serves as an organic farm with greenhouse and as a boarding facility for horses. Aquila is Latin for eagle, and the farm gets its name from the bronze bird that can be seen perched over a stone monument directly across Bay Road (Route 1A) next to the First Congregational Church of Hamilton.

Pirie got Planning Board approval on Jan. 30 to change the property from a three-lot subdivision to a six-lot subdivision. When the property was divided into the three lots in 1997, the Planning Board stipulated that the property could not be further subdivided into more than six lots, according to Kristine Cheetham, planning coordinator.

Selectman Jeff Stinson said the Pirie Property Committee is meeting about twice a week to ponder possible uses for the land. A Special Town Meeting would be needed in order for the town to purchase the land within the 120-day timeline.

“Any time a property of this size and location becomes available, it would be a disservice to the town not to look at it,” Stinson said. “There will never be another chance to buy this property. We need to take a long, hard look at this over the next 100 days.”

One idea Stinson has brought forth is to buy the property for various future town needs, maybe senior housing, fields or schools. The portions sold for private development would bring in money toward the purchase of the land, he said.

During a recent selectmen’s meeting, he specifically mentioned the need for a new high school in the future.

He said if a new school were built, the town could relocate students and sell Winthrop and Cutler schools to offset the costs. The ultimate goal of purchasing the property would be to lower tax rates and increase property values, he said. The purchase could also protect open space and popular horse riding trails, Stinson said.

The major questions about the possible purchase include: Can the town afford to spend $4 million? And is 120 days enough time to come up with a plan for a Special Town Meeting?

Stinson said the town would bond the purchase — likely over a 30-year period — which would amount to an average of $200,000 coming out of the budget annually over the course of the bond.

Selectmen also could decide not to pursue the land purchase, Stinson said.

Town Manager Michael Lombardo said the town was notified on Feb. 20 that the owner has a purchase and sale agreement, which started the 120-day clock for the town.

If selectmen decide to move forward with the purchase, Town Meeting would have to approve the deal by a two-thirds margin before June 20.

Selectman David Neill said the committee’s task is to help selectmen decide whether to recommend a purchase to Town Meeting.

“Four million is a lot of money on one hand,” Neill said. “On the other hand, you don’t always have an opportunity to purchase such a large tract of land. At times, there is a need for it.”

He said he believes the town should have a specific use for the land before calling a Town Meeting but said the timeline makes it difficult.

“Just to determine if a high school could be built there it would take longer than 120 days,” he said.

Selectman Jeff Hubbard said the town knew the property was on the market for a number of years and should have had discussions about it before now. He questions whether it is responsible to ask the town to spend $4 million in such a short amount of time but said he remains open-minded.

“I have a tough time imagining how purchasing a property at that cost would make economic sense for the town,” he said. “Unless there is oil underneath.”

Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at jphelps@salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.