By John Anderson
Few issues in Auburn have generated the public outcry that has come from the announcement of the potential sale and development of land commonly known as South Meadow Farm. This article will hopefully clarify some of the confusion and some of the misconceptions related to this land transaction.
The land is owned by the Sylvia C. Post Family Limited Partnerships I and IV, and the listed contact is Robert C. Post. For many years, this land has been classified and taxed as “Agricultural” pursuant to M.G.L. Chapter 61A. Because of this designation, the seller is obligated to notify the local board of selectmen, board of assessors, planning board, and conservation commission as well as the state forester if the land use will be different in the future. Furthermore, the town of Auburn has the right of first refusal to purchase the land.
The Post property has been marketed for many years as Southold Meadow, so this development is not a total surprise for some. Phase I included 25 single-family house lots and was approved “decades ago” according to Town officials. Phase II added 13 more lots and was approved in 2010.
Most recently, Southoldmeadow.com showed an unapproved Phase III with an additional 39 lots for a total of 77 lots on 60 acres in three phases. That graphic and description has since been removed from the site.
The seller mailed the official Notice of Intent to Sell to the town on August 12th, and it was received by the Town Clerk on August 13th. From this date, the town has 120 days to exercise or assign its right of first refusal to purchase the property, or it can waive its right and decline. That deadline is December 10th.
The town also had 30 days to verify that the notification is complete, which it was. The Notice of Intent submitted by Post had the required detail, “The proposed use of the Land is residential.”
The buyer has no legal obligation to communicate with the town as the 61A process is between the Seller and the Town. The proposed buyer, Tilltime Investment Corp., did, in fact, contact Town officials. On August 14th, Tilltime Investment Corp.’s president Scott B. Sundin and his attorney met with Town Manager Julie Jacobson. Jacobson asked that they present a plan to the BOS on September 22nd. Being unavailable on the 22nd, Sundin agreed to present on October 14th, at which time he did not produce a definitive development plan.
Sundin indicated they were still developing their plan which may have an affordable housing component in a future phase. With recent success developing a large apartment complex in Holden, Sundin suggested a similar project might be considered in Auburn.
The Board of Selectmen has taken a lot of heat during the public hearing as many have called for an immediate vote to purchase the land. At this time, the only vote that the selectmen can legally take is whether to waive or assign their first refusal option. A vote to waive their right of first refusal would give the developer a green light to proceed.
In a town meeting form of government, only a vote of the elected Town Meeting members can authorize the expenditure or borrowing of funds. To that end, the BOS has set a special town meeting on November 18th. The BOS also opened and closed the warrant to include an article to authorize a borrowing or to otherwise raise and appropriate the funds to purchase the land. If Town Meeting approves the land purchase, the BOS can then vote to exercise its right to approve the purchase.
CFO Ed Kazanovicz presented several funding possibilities for the land purchase at the November 3rd BOS meeting. An anonymous donor has offered the Town $1 million toward the $2.86 million purchase
price. The donor has placed a restriction on this gift that the entire property must be maintained as open space in perpetuity. If the Town accepts the gift, future development or sales of individual lots would not be an option.
Taking funds from the stabilization fund or free cash may have a negative impact on the town’s bond rating at a time when, in less than a year, the town will need to convert approximately $10.1 million of bond anticipation notes into long-term bonds to finance the new middle school. A reduced bond rating would increase borrowing costs to the Town, resulting in additional costs to taxpayers for the term of the bonds. The borrowing costs of any additional bonds that may be required to fund Auburn’s future capital needs would likewise increase.
Excess tax levy capacity has also been suggested as a funding mechanism Utilizing this excess levy would require an appropriation by a majority vote of Town Meeting. Use of excess levy translates into increased taxation for all property classes.
Most Auburn residents who have spoken publicly on this topic are in favor of purchasing the land and keeping it as open space. The biggest concern is that putting a large apartment complex at the junction of two country roads is a mistake. Without a submitted plan, it is unclear to what extent such a project would tax local infrastructure.
According to Town administrators, the 120-day window for boards of selectmen to vote to waive, assign or exercise their right of first refusal on 61A lands when they are offered to municipalities is an inadequate time period. Town Manager Jacobson said, “I think the Chapter 61A process needs to be amended to expand the period beyond 120 days to enable municipalities to thoroughly review the Notice and conduct proper due diligence so that select boards can make educated and informed decisions that will impact communities for generations to come.”
The Board of Selectmen will hold additional public comment hearings on Monday, November 10 at 5:30pm at Town Hall (please note the earlier start time as BOS meetings typically start at 7pm).