A week and a day after Town Meeting gave its blessing for the Select Board to pursue zoning changes to facilitate a combined open space/development project for the Foster property, attorneys for the property’s owners informed the town that the parcel is no longer on the market and may be under contract with an unnamed new potential buyer.
In an email response to a Foster-related inquiry from Town Counsel Chris Heep, an attorney for the Foster Trust replied: “I understand that you have reached out . . . about the above-referenced property. I wanted to let you know that the property is no longer on the market at this time. Our firm is bound by confidentiality requirements and cannot comment further on the matter.”
The seller’s decision to change dance partners came as a shock to town officials and to the head of Northland Residential, the real estate firm with whom the town has been working for nearly two years to execute a complex development scheme for the 62-acre parcel off Charles River Street.
“For us, it came out of the blue — obviously, seeing as we just went to Town Meeting,” said Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley, who has championed the project for more than two years.
“I don’t know if I was shocked and flabbergasted or flabbergasted and shocked. I don’t know what to say,” said Northland Residential CEO Jack Dawley.
Louise Miller, chair of the Finance Committee that recommended against the project, had a different reaction.
“Was I surprised? No.” She referred to Northland’s stated concerns about the potential profitability of the project due to an affordable housing requirement of 5%.
“And that was a year ago,” she said. “If it was not profitable a year ago, how would it be today when costs have only gone up.”
In a media release, the town said it “remains committed to working with the eventual buyer of this property to preserve as much of the land as is possible and will engage the new buyer in discussion to that effect at the earliest opportunity.”
It was precisely one year ago that Northland entered into a purchase agreement with the sellers, the Foster Trust, to purchase the property. That contract lapsed this spring when the original concept approved at the October 2022 Town Meeting failed to gain necessary state approvals.
“We had been in communication with them for months,” said Dawley, adding that lines of communication remained open among the sellers, Northland and the town even after the purchase and sale agreement had fallen through.
In fact, the Select Board’s decision to seek the nonbinding resolution approved at last week’s Town Meeting in support of pursuing required zoning changes was designed partly to reassure the sellers that the project was still a town priority.
“I was told by the broker, LandVest, that some unsolicited inquiries and offers had been made,” said Dawley of activity well in advance of Town Meeting. “The trust turned them down because they were pursuing the rezoning pathway with Northland and the town. That was the only inkling I had gotten.
“It’s not completely out of the realm that someone would parachute in and make an offer that couldn’t be passed up,” he added. “But I would say it’s somewhat unusual.”
For her part, Cooley noted that she has consistently said the town, while certainly close to the deal, was more adjacent than involved.
“As we’ve been saying about this transaction all along, it’s private between parties that we are not party to,” she said.
Miller, once again, takes an alternative view. “I don’t understand why the town hasn’t been engaging directly with the seller instead of dealing with a developer.”
While disappointed, Cooley held out hope that the eventual outcome could still realize some of the town’s open space protection and public access goals, based on how the sellers have long been marketing the property.
“I don’t know what the sellers or LandVest have specifically conveyed to anybody else who spoke to them,” Cooley said of the newly announced deal. “What I do know is that as early as spring of 2022, LandVest told people who would be delivering their best and final (offers) that the sellers were interested in plans that included clustered zoning proposals and provisions for open space being set aside.”
A local real estate professional, Louis Wolfson, said Wednesday he represented a developer who in October made what Wolfson called “a substantial offer — all cash not subject to zoning changes.” Wolfson said he received no response from the seller.
Asked for comment, a LandVest representative said, “We are not in a position to be able to comment on this.”
Dawley said he will reach out to the seller’s attorney in the next day or so to seek more detail. “All I have at this point is a succinct — I won’t say terse because that implies something. I’ll say a succinct two-sentence email.”
As for next steps, Dawley said he always takes the long view. “We pursue properties like this for years.
“Believe it or not, I have a box behind my desk called ‘the properties-not-bought box.’ I hang on to the materials because properties come back to the market. Every once in a while I clean out the box, but oftentimes the material that I keep is worthy the second time around or the third time around.”
“It’s a tough business but we’re good at it,” Dawley said. “I think we behave well at it. We’ll hope that there’s another chance.”
Miller said her committee stands ready to assist. “Going forward, the Finance Committee is always available to help the town achieve its goals. If asked, we will provide our expertise with respect to any of the next steps on this project.”