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GROTON – Asked to consider an offer by a local developer that could save the town millions of dollars, members of the Board of Selectmen chose last Monday night not to pursue the proposal.

Board member Fran Dillon spoke for fellow selectmen when he said the offer, made by developer Peter Gillis, had been made “too late in the game” for supporters of the Surrenden Farm land purchase deal to alter the course of negotiations.

Selectmen considered the offer made by Gillis to cover the town’s $5.6 million share of the property’s $19.4 million total cost at the behest of the Finance Committee, which asked in a letter submitted to the board that the issue be discussed.

Prompting the FinCom’s interest in the matter was a concern by some members that the offer by Gillis had not been given a fair hearing by the steering committee charged with overseeing the purchase of the property when it was first presented there.

“This looked like it had enough potential that it could not be ignored,” said Finance Committee Chairman Steve Webber on Monday night.

Webber asked selectmen to at least give the steering committee some direction to consider the offer.

But the request met with immediate doubt on the part of selectmen, with Chairman Peter Cunningham calling the situation “very difficult and complicated to revisit at this point.”

Cunningham said the driving force behind the land purchase deal remains the Trust for Public Land (TPL), the private organization that has put up millions of dollars to secure the property while negotiations move toward a final closing date sometime in December.

While the public might have some interest in creating more affordable housing, Cunningham said, going beyond the 14 acres already set aside for that purpose “complicates and changes pretty significantly the outline of the plan submitted to town meeting.”

Voters at the annual town meeting last April agreed to buy the former Surrenden Farm, obligating the town to pay $5.6 million as its share of the purchase price.

Although the purchase agreement for the farm called for most of the land to be set aside for conservation purposes, some of the property would still be available for commercial sale, including a number of existing homes that would be sold to raise part of the purchase price.

The land set aside for possible commercial sale includes 14 acres tucked away in a corner of the property out of immediate view of the property expected to comprise the most-prized area for conservation.

It is those 14 acres, plus an additional 12 acres, which Gillis proposed for a housing complex. In return, the developer offered not only to pay the town’s $5.6 million portion of the entire Surrenden Farm cost, but to also set aside 30 acres as conservation land across the town line in Ayer.

Besides saving the town money, other benefits from such a deal, as stated in the FinCom’s letter to selectmen, include an estimated yearly take of $500,000 in additional property taxes, the creation of needed age-restricted housing in town, and an improved bond rating for the town.

Selectman Fran Dillon, in agreeing with the chairman, said consideration of Gillis’ proposal could threaten fund-raising efforts and upset a complicated schedule that needs to be met if the land purchase were to be consummated by December.

Dillon said that there were too many “complicating factors” that could “unravel” negotiations at this late date and that entertaining such a proposal could “scuttle the whole thing.”

Planning administrator Michelle Collette reminded those in attendance at Monday’s meeting that there would be utilities, roads, detention basins, infrastructure, traffic, and stormwater management issues to consider in building a 60-plus-unit housing project.

“All the things that development brings,” Collette said, adding that there would also be the chance of environmental damage. “There’s a lot at risk.”

Board member Mihran Keoseian said he had heard from residents who would be upset if the rules changed so late in the game for a deal they thought had been settled at town meeting. Furthermore, with the way the proposal was brought up at a recent meeting intended simply to reactivate the steering committee, Keoseian wondered whether the offer had been in the works even before town meeting.

“I’m not comfortable with the way that unfolded,” agreed fellow board member Jack Saball.

Finally, Groton Conservation Trust president Edward McNierney reminded town officials that the Surrenden Farm land did not yet even belong to the town. Until the closing in December, only TPL had a claim on the property.

If the town is seen as backing away from its commitment to pay the $5.6 million, McNierney said, it could threaten fund-raising efforts and by extension the entire deal.

With most of those attending the meeting warning of dire consequences should the town continue to explore the development offer, and with a letter from TPL representative Arthur Blackett expressing opposition to the deal, the FinCom’s request that the matter be considered by the steering committee failed for lack of support.

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