Credit: Needham Observer

The parcels of land known alternatively as the Foster property and Castle Farm were sold at the end of December for a total of $18 million to an entity known as the Castle Farm Realty Trust, altering the town’s plans to preserve a portion of the land as open space.

As a consequence, the $2.5 million debt authorization approved at the 2022 Fall Town Meeting will be rescinded. The funds were allocated for the town to purchase more than half of the 64 acres for conservation and passive recreational uses in return for helping facilitate rezoning to allow a 70-unit clustered townhouse community.

The project has been championed by the Select Board since 2021. The board began laying the groundwork for the project when the parcel was offered for sale by two trusts composed of heirs from the Foster family, which has owned the property since the early 1900s.

The property is the last significant parcel of open space along Charles River Street in the section of town once occupied by multiple Gilded Age estates. It had been offered for sale first to conservation groups but went on the general real estate market for lack of willing buyers among the land trusts.

The Select Board inserted itself into the process, acting mostly in private in an attempt to affect a sale that would retain as much of the land as open space as possible.

The Select Board’s strategy became public in September 2022 when it unveiled an arrangement being negotiated among the town, the sellers and a private developer, Northland Residential.

The Select Board received overwhelming approval for the $2.5 million debt authorization at Town Meeting despite opposition from the Finance Committee and abutters to the property. 

The project failed to gain necessary state approvals, and the developer and seller were not able to execute a sale. The effort ultimately foundered this past November when the sellers announced they would no longer participate in discussions.

The FinCom’s Jan. 3 meeting, its first since learning of the sale, coincided with the fiscal year 2025 budget review for the town manager’s office and the Select Board. FinCom members asked that the borrowing authorization for the $2.5M be rescinded, with FinCom member Jim Healy noting the funds could not be expended in a way that complied with the original Town Meeting warrant language.

“I very much hope the Select Board would rescind that prior authorization so that it can be used for other purposes,” Healy said.

Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick agreed, saying, “according to the text of the warrant article, it’s impossible for us to use it for any other purpose.”

FinCom member John Connelly noted that the committee will be reviewing multiple capital projects seeking funding. “Having that money not be tied up will be important for those conversations,” he said. “I think it should be rescinded, and it should happen sooner rather than later.”

Subsequently, Fitzpatrick has confirmed she will recommend the Select Board ask Town Meeting in May to rescind the $2.5 million authorization. However, this does not necessarily signal the end of the project. “It is clear the public is very interested in conservation and access at that property and we will make every effort to make that happen.”

Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley echoed Fitzpatrick. “Under the current conditions, we can’t use the funds,” she said. ”Still, we are committed to working with whoever purchases that property.”

Connelly said FinCom would be open to considering a new project. “As with every proposed capital project, we’d want to see all the background on which it’s based — the accounting, what funds are needed.”

“The FinCom is as interested as anyone in the purchase of open space, as appropriate. Whether it’s this parcel or not, we’ll deliberate on it.”

Cooley said the town has been in contact with Paul Popeo, the Choate, Hall & Stewart attorney who is trustee of the Castle Farm Realty Trust. Popeo is also a longtime Needham resident.

“We hope to have some discussion with the purchaser at some point in the future,” said Cooley. “They are not at this point ready to have a conversation.

“I think the fact the lawyer for the trust is a Needham resident is, at its heart, kind of a positive thing. I’m hoping that person will understand the interests of the town here.

“We remain optimistic that something can happen.”

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