By Jonathan Phelps
---- — HAMILTON — Town Meeting voters last night overwhelmingly rejected a $4 million proposal to buy the 86-acre Aquila Farm.
Town officials proposed plans to use the land for conservation, public horseback riding and hiking trails, sports fields and to sell a portion to a developer to build a cluster of cottage-style homes, duplexes or senior apartments.
But the motion at last night’s packed Special Town Meeting failed with 481 residents voting against the proposal and 391 voting in favor. The purchase required a two-thirds vote but didn’t even carry a simple majority. A total of 869 voted, about 15 percent of the town’s registered voters.
The town had the right of first refusal to buy the property because of an agricultural designation that has allowed it to be taxed at a lower rate.
UpperCross Development has an agreement to buy Aquila Farm from owner Deirdre Pirie for $4 million. The company plans to subdivide the property into six large, equestrian-themed homes, with open space that would remain private.
Selectman Scott Maddern said using 14 acres of the land for mixed-use housing could bring in an estimated $500,000 to $525,000 in increased tax revenue to the town, while the plan by UpperCross would bring in about $170,000.
He said that there were no set plans for the property and more work would have to be done if the town decided to buy the land.
“There are valuable opportunities we can seize for the town,” he said, noting that the proposal addresses many of the needs of the town brought up in the master plan and housing production plan.
The Finance and Advisory Committee supported the town’s bid to buy the land at last night’s meeting.
Supporters at the meeting contended that the plan would help lower the town’s tax rate, provide more affordable housing and open up the land to public use.
Chebacco Road resident Bill Dery, who also serves on the School Committee, spoke against the proposal, saying town officials who support the plan are wearing “blinders and rose-colored glasses.” He questioned the revenue presented by selectmen and was concerned about the potential risk to the town.
“We are not equipped to go into business. We are not in business,” he said. “Let the builders take the risk, not us.”
William Wheaton, of Bridge Street, said the plan was a “fiscal drain” and will likely cost the town more than any new tax revenue it will bring in.
“When you increase the town’s population by 3 percent, what you do generally is increase the budget by 3 percent,” said Wheaton, who is an economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If Hamilton increases by 3 percent, the cost eventually to the school system, to the police and fire under this proposal will be half a million a year, and you’ll exceed the tax revenue ... the tax rate will actually go up, not down.”
For others, like Peter Whitman of Bridge Street, the town’s plan for mixed housing would “diminish the character of the town.”
“This is the wrong plan for our town,” he said.
Former Selectmen David Carey spoke in favor of the proposal, saying it would help lower the town’s tax rates.
“This is about as close to a holy grail as you can get,” Carey said. “It will preserve an enormous amount of beautiful open space, make it open for recreation and bring a wide range of housing and, lastly, improve the revenue to the town.”
Selectman Jennifer Scuteri, who supported bringing the plan to Town Meeting, said it is time for the town to make some changes and work together to solve major issues. She mentioned other communities that have taken advantage of purchasing similar plots of land.
“Hamilton keeps missing out on these opportunities,” she said. “Once this land is divided into six parcels and six McMansions, we will never set foot on that property, and they will forever receive property tax exemptions.”
About four residents hoping to speak in favor of the proposal were cut off because Town Meeting voters approved a motion to move on to the vote after about an hour and half of debate.
Before the meeting, Town Moderator Bruce Ramsey made the decision to have the vote taken by ballot. He said this would be the most effective way to get an accurate vote with the large turnout expected.
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.