, Salem, MA

June 10, 2013

Letter: Town shouldn't be involved in land speculation

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

Friday morning’s Salem News banner headline, “Property developer has ties to citizens group,” is a misleading suggestion that somehow the opposition to the purchase of the Pirie property by the town has been fomented by sinister outside forces. It is an insult to the people of Hamilton who are being asked to vote at a special town meeting on June 11. We should be thankful to our town leaders for provoking the level of discussion that has ensued around the purchase. The very important issues of housing diversity, open space, our town’s cost structure and tax rate and what the town should look like in 10 years are worthy of considerable discussion and this is taking place. During the course of those discussions, town leaders have taken every opportunity to try and make a case for acquisition. Responsible citizens are simultaneously exploring the alternatives, which involves the developers who have signed a purchase and sale agreement with the Piries in good faith.

The background is important. This property in the heart of our Historic District has been on the market off and on since the mid-1990s, when the Piries came to the Planning Board and gained approval for a six-lot subdivision. Serious marketing efforts began more than two years ago. Our town leaders only roused themselves about 100 days ago with the signing of the purchase and sale agreement when someone decided this could be a slam dunk on the issues listed above. Many other opportunities have gone by over the years, and there will be many more in the future, but suddenly this was the panacea. They have closed ranks in mutual support except for two selectmen.

A study committee was hastily formed with representatives of each of the boards. They identified 17 to 20 fatal flaws to the concept. Somehow, those have never been discussed by the Board of Selectmen in open session. The committee forwarded its findings to the selectmen without a recommendation.

What the citizens are being asked to vote on at Town Meeting is a land speculation. Will we allow the town government to borrow $4 million to supplant Upper Cross and buy the property? The only sure bet after that is that the property would come off the tax rolls for some indeterminate period, which could go on for years while we pay interest on the debt and many consultants to write RFPs, do engineering studies and all the other things developers do before any construction can start. We the citizens are assured at least five real developers are anxious to buy the property from us and do all the hard work achieving miracles in housing diversity but somehow the details aren’t revealed and the nature of the final product changes depending on the priorities of the audience. It doesn’t inspire confidence and it isn’t “Smart Growth.” There is still no plan for the Patton property, which was given to the town 10 months ago, and other recent projects undertaken by the town have been less than a total success.

The choice seems simple to me. Our town leaders are proposing to enter a risky private business betting with our money without any business plan and only hazy possibilities as to what they intend while the serious responsibility of running the town, which they were elected to do, goes unattended. On the other side, the private buyers of the property will leave it largely unchanged since only two new structures would be built. I calculate the town should receive about $1 million in revenue over the next five years. During that same period, we could expect little or nothing except costs under town stewardship. Also disturbing is that the town boards charged with vetting projects, such as the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Board of Health and the Conservation Commission, would be under great pressure to accommodate whatever the town ultimately proposes which will be a conflict of interest. At least one Planning Board member has written publicly about this issue.

Jack Lawrence