SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 7, 2013

Pirie property developer has ties to Hamilton citizens group

BY PAUL LEIGHTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — HAMILTON — The company that is seeking to develop Aquila Farm is backing a campaign urging residents to vote against the town’s acquisition of the property.

UpperCross Development Group, which wants to build six homes on the 86-acre farm, has attended some of the group’s meetings and paid to register the domain name of the group’s website, SaveHamilton.org.

Jeff Stinson, a former selectman who supports the town’s purchase of the property, said a developer with a financial interest in the property should not be trying to influence voters.

“No matter what our opinion is — and there are good perspectives on both sides — let’s have the discussion as a community and a town over the facts,” Stinson said. “Let’s not let some outside heavyweight super PAC affect our decision here.”

SaveHamilton.org member Harold Lichten acknowledged that UpperCross Development has attended the group’s meetings and registered its website domain name. But he disputed the contention that SaveHamilton.org is a front group for the developer.

“That’s such a piece of hogwash,” Lichten said. “It’s an entirely grass-roots organization. Sure, the developer has interest in it, and we’re happy to receive help from anybody, but we run the organization.”

Lichten said the citizens group started with about 30 members, all residents of the town, and has grown since. He provided an email list with more than 50 names of people he said are members of the group.

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.

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

Selectmen voted 3-2 last month to bring the proposal to buy the land for the $4 million sale price before Town Meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Winthrop School.

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 new housing 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.

Questions about UpperCross Development’s connections to the opposition group arose when it was discovered that one of the company’s employees, Kirsten McLellan, registered the domain name for SaveHamilton.org.

Lichten said McLellan registered the name because a company representative who was at one of the group’s meetings suggested it.

“The developer mentioned there was someone there who knows how to purchase a domain name,” Lichten said. “I don’t know anything about computers.”

Lichten said UpperCross registered and paid for the domain name, which he said cost $20. He said members of the group run the website.

McLellan registered the website under the name SaveHamilton.org on May 3, according to online domain registry information. Users who type in SaveHamilton.org now are automatically directed to a website called SaveHamilton.com. Domain registry information for SaveHamilton.com is listed as private.

Lichten said it is common for someone to purchase the .org and .com versions of a website in order to prevent someone else from using the name. He denied that the change from .org to .com was designed to obscure the fact that it was McLellan who registered the domain name.

“I can assure you there was nothing meant to mislead anyone,” Lichten said.

SaveHamilton.com has also sent mailings to residents and put up lawn signs. Lichten said he paid almost $1,000 of his own money for the lawn signs. He said the mailings were written by group members but he does not know who paid for them.

“We’re not a dictatorship,” he said. “We’re a group of loosely knit people.”

Stinson, the former selectman, said state regulations do not compel disclosure of campaign spending regarding Town Meeting votes, as they do with ballot question campaigns.

McLellan did not return a phone call seeking comment. UpperCross Development’s two principals, Robert Harte and Lawrence Frej, also did not return calls.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.