Credit: Town of Needham

The Select Board and the Finance Committee (FinCom) find themselves at loggerheads over the Select Board’s ambitions for the Castle Farm property, creating uncertainty over the proposed development and the potential conservation windfall the Select Board believes it could bring. 

At its Aug. 23 meeting, FinCom challenged the Select Board over its handling of the project and discussed concerns about the Select Board’s process related to its plans for the property off Charles River Street.

The FinCom will be requesting copies of all communications the Select Board has had related to its efforts on the 62-acre parcel, dating back more than a year.

The catalyst for the sweeping request was the Select Board’s vote at its last meeting to place an article regarding the site on the October Special Town Meeting warrant. The article is a non-binding resolution seeking Town Meeting’s opinion on the board’s revised concept for its plans for the property.

Last fall, the Select Board sought and received Town Meeting approval for a $2.5 million debt authorization for the town to acquire more than half of the property’s acreage in return for supporting the plans of Northland Residential of Concord to construct a 70-unit clustered townhome development with at least 5% affordable units. Under that original plan, roughly half the parcel would eventually become town-owned open space.

FinCom unanimously opposed the Select Board plan on multiple grounds, including that the plan was far from fully evolved, the land had yet to be purchased and the relationship with the developer was problematic. Town Meeting disregarded the FinCom guidance and overwhelmingly approved the Select Board’s initial plan.

That plan eventually fell through when the proposal failed to gain the required support from the state’s housing agency. That support would have allowed the project to proceed under a streamlined approval process in return for the provision of affordable housing. 

It was the failure to reach an agreement on the required number of affordable units that ultimately caused the Select Board to abandon that approach, a factor which FinCom member Jim Healy seized upon.

“One of the things the Finance Committee discussed on multiple occasions in respect to this potential project was that it seemed illogical and entirely inappropriate to suggest that this was an affordable housing initiative when it was going to provide only 5% affordable housing — nowhere near the limits that (the state) has set forth for many, many years,” said Healy.

The FinCom claimed the concerns it raised about the project at last fall’s Town Meeting, when it cautioned the Select Board and Town Meeting to delay action, had been validated.

“I think the transaction was not really ripe,” FinCom Chair Louise Miller said in an interview after the meeting.  “That’s what the FinCom said initially. It was not in the right posture yet to move forward.”

In its pivot away from the state process, the Select Board now seeks to adhere to the standard local process to rezone the bulk of the parcel to allow a project that still greatly resembles the initial concept.

The project is further complicated by the fact that after a year of negotiations with the owners of the property, Northland has yet to conclude its purchase of the property.

FinCom clearly signaled it finds the revised plan no more palatable than the original. The opposition was based on both the substance of the plan and the process the Select Board has followed.

“There are two issues here,” said FinCom member Barry Coffman. ”There’s the economics of the deal, which is what we opined on before Town Meeting. That and the lack of process in giving us information.

“Being somewhat cynical, my guess is the town wants this land to be preserved — or Town Meeting wants this land to be preserved -— process be damned,” he added.  

“It looks like we’re going to go through the same argument again, which is: If we don’t do this then someone is going to build McMansions.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with McMansions,” said recently appointed FinCom member Carli Hairston.

“I think it’s fortunate we know this, about two months before Special Town Meeting,” said Miller. She said FinCom would use the time to put together a list of questions  and comments for the Select Board well in advance of the drafting of the final warrant for special Town Meeting.

Asked for comment, Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley seemed nonplussed.

“We certainly will be happy to inform the Finance Committee of the unchanged facts — which remain the same,” Cooley said. “I actually don’t think there’s that much to give them.”

Cooley rejected the notion there have been “all these secret conversations.”

“There’s nothing that we’ll provide that we haven’t said in public.”

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