SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 11, 2013

Town Meeting votes tonight on buying Pirie land

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff writer

---- — HAMILTON — Controversy over whether the town should buy the 86-acre Aquila Farm for $4 million has heated up over the past few weeks. Tonight, Town Meeting voters will make their decision.

Special Town Meeting begins at 7:30 tonight in the Winthrop School cafeteria. The purchase will require a two-thirds majority to pass.

UpperCross Development, a Boston real estate development firm, 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.

The town has the right of first refusal on the property, however, because of an agricultural designation that has allowed it to be taxed at a lower rate.

Town Moderator Bruce Ramsey has made the decision to have the vote taken by ballot at the meeting. He said this will be the most effective way to get an accurate vote with the large turnout expected.

Conceptual plans call for the town to sell a portion of the property to a developer to build a cluster of cottage-style homes, duplexes or senior apartments, with the rest of the property used for conservation, public horseback riding and hiking trails, and sports fields.

Supporters say the plan would help lower the town’s tax rate, provide more affordable housing and open up the land to public use. Opponents say it’s a risky financial deal with taxpayer money, and it would create traffic problems and interfere with equestrian trails.

Ann Minois, a resident of Moulton Street who opposes the plan, said yesterday that the town shouldn’t be in the real estate business with taxpayer money. She is concerned about “lack of specificity” about the costs associated with the purchase, as well as the impact on the school system in a relatively short amount of time, she said.

“I think Pirie is a classic case of the town being shockingly willing to use $4 million in taxpayer funds, using embarrassing class-warfare tactics and promising the moon to the people of Hamilton,” she said.

Jerry Fallon, of Goodhue Street, another opponent, said he worries that if the town attempts to develop the property as proposed, it would face costly litigation that could tie up the project for years.

UpperCross Development’s plan will bring about $200,000 in new tax revenue, Fallon said.

“Even in the best-case scenario, if the town brings in $300,000 more in additional revenue with its plan, that is only about 1 percent of the town’s $27 million budget,” he said. “That is hardly a solution for our high tax rates.”

He said he moved to the town for its rural character and fears the proposal would result in “destroying a small part of what makes Hamilton unique and different from many of the towns surrounding it.”

Supporters of the purchase, however, say this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the town.

“I think it would be a great long-term investment for the town,” Planning Board member Rick Mitchell said. “It addresses revenue generation, increasing housing options and open space preservation, which are all important opportunities that have been thoroughly discussed by the majority of townspeople.”

He characterized the purchase as “low-risk,” noting rising real estate values and a need for land for such projects in town. He said he disagrees with a “Save Hamilton” campaign in opposition to the town’s purchase.

“Save Hamilton from what and for whom?” he asked. “(UpperCross Development’s purchase of the land) is not saving Hamilton. What will save Hamilton is increased revenue and new housing options.”

The town’s Finance and Advisory Committee supports the proposal for the town to buy the land.

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.