At Groton’s annual town meeting, the citizens of Groton will be asked to appropriate $5.65 million as the town’s portion of a $19.2 million purchase for Surrenden Farms. The meeting will take up the subject at 8 p.m.. on Monday, April 24.
The proponents’ first presentation to the Board of Selectmen occurred on February 13, 2006. The selectmen voted on February 27 in a split vote to support the $5.65 million appropriation.
I hold our Board of Selectmen in high regard as do the members of the steering committee, the community preservation committee and the conservationists who attended both meetings. I consider many of them my friends and so I hope they will not consider it disrespectful if I present an opinion quite different from theirs on the matter of Surrenden Farms. If I should suppress my concerns for fear of offending the proponents then I would consider myself lacking in personal and political responsibility. Freedom of speech is essential in the town meeting form of government. I will, therefore, speak openly and with frankness.
In this first public presentation on February 13, the selectmen were being pressured by the seller to follow an unreasonable timetable. The fast-track timetable was the first of many negatives that caught my attention. Within two weeks of the first presentation, by February 27, the selectmen were being required by the seller to vote on a $5.65 appropriation.
A Mr. Blackett of the Trust for Public Land was speaking. Blackett was representing the Trustees of Groton School; the developer, Joseph Falzone; and the owners — the Campbell and Danielson Trusts. Without a representative of the town of Groton present, this group of five entities had been formulating the terms of sale for six to ten months prior to the meeting of February 13. The developer and owners had completed their land and building appraisals by August 22, 2005, but chose to announce their purchase terms to the town of Groton in late January 2006. The late presentation had the effect of limiting public input and forced the town into fast-track decisions. Instead of criticizing the fast-track process and the fact the town had been denied input into the terms of the sale, town officials praised the proponents’ plan. The actions taken by town officials in the weeks that followed undermined the integrity of the open town meeting form of government.
The procedural irregularities continued. At the time I requested a copy of the appraisals I had also requested a copy of the purchase and sale agreement between the town and the seller and was told none existed. I was told the title would be conveyed to the town by the Trust for Public Land (TPL), who in turn would acquire their title from the Campbell and Danielson Trusts. Since no agreement existed between the town and the TPL, I asked if I might be provided a copy of the agreement existing between TPL, the sellers, the developer, and Groton School. I argued that whatever right, title, interest, easements and restrictions TPL was acquiring under the terms of their agreement with the developer/sellers, the town would be acquiring the same rights and restrictions that TPL received.
When the selectmen requested a copy of the agreement, their request was denied. The TPL, the Trustees of Groton School, the developer and the two owners had entered into a secret and confidential agreement. The parties to the agreement were refusing to release basic information critical to the town’s future title to the land. Frustrated, I asked why the town did not have a representative or legal counsel present when this group of five entities established the terms and conditions of the sale. Their simple answer — town officials had not been invited to participate in the discussions, yet the town was being asked to contribute $5.65 million.
Perhaps if the town had legal counsel present during the discussions, the town could have saved the 71 units of senior housing planned for a section of the land. The location of the senior housing units on the site had been previously approved by the planning board so the units would not block the view of Mount Wachusett from Farmers Row. The town also lost the possibility of building a senior center or public school on the uncontaminated portions of the site. Citizens should ask who among the group of five entities dictated to the town that there would be no public use of the land?
Arsenic contamination at the site should be another question of concern to voters. During the subdivision approval process, the Groton Board of Health, through experts, raised the issue of arsenic contamination on parts of Surrenden Farms. It is now ironic that under the proposed terms of sale the developer is requiring the town to take title to the property in its arsenic-contaminated state with the town responsible for any remediation. According to proponents, the presence of arsenic is not a serious matter and the Board of Health and its experts exaggerated its dangers throughout the subdivision approval process. We are now told we can walk on the contaminated ground as long as we clean our shoes before reentering our homes. The proponents further say that the selling price of $19.4 million was reduced and reflects a generous reduction of $800,000 in order for the town to address future remediation expenses.
At a time when our schools are struggling; at a time when town departments are being denied equipment and personnel; at a time when we have one of the highest long-term per capita debts in the state; we are told this $5.65 million appropriation will not cost the taxpayers money. The fact is the money is coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets — taxpayer funds are collected under the Community Preservation Act — a fund that will be decimated for years to come, all for the benefit of preserving views for Groton School.
In 1964, this writer was one of the founders of the Groton Conservation Trust. In the years that followed, I have been quietly effective in bringing hundreds of acres of land under conservation control. I believe the preservation of land is important to the quality of life for future generations. The town of Groton has done its part and has been in the forefront of conservation with some 7,000 to 10,000 acres protected under varying forms of public and private conservation restrictions. If the town had been allowed a role in negotiating the terms of sale perhaps 200 acres could have been pledged to conservation and 60 acres reserved for various community needs. At the same time the distant views of Mount Wachusett from Farmers Row could have been preserved.
Despite the procedural errors and irregularities perhaps as few as 500 of the town’s 6,600 voters will attend town meeting to vote the purchase of Surrenden Farms. Critics and scholars will later point to the approval as a textbook example of how special interests have come to dominate the 21st century town meeting form of government.
ROBERT L. GOSSELIN