In a battle that some say pits the wealthy against those who want to make Hamilton a more affordable place to live, Hamilton residents are debating over whether the town should purchase an 86-acre expanse of farmland and woods or let the property owner sell to a developer who plans to subdivide into six lots for luxury homes.
Voters at a Special Town Meeting June 11 will decide whether to authorize the $3.9 million purchase of the 641 Bay Road Aquila Farm property owned by Deirdre Pirie under the terms of Chapter 61A, which gives the town the right of first refusal in exchange for agricultural tax breaks.
Under the Board of Selectmen’s plan, the town would buy the land and sell to a developer interested in following the town’s vision to create clustered housing on 14 acres, an athletic field, and about 70 acres of open space that includes expansion of equestrian trails into a public system.
Marc Johnson, the board’s chairman, who has a business background in commercial real estate investment, said that with municipal borrowing rates low, the purchase would not require a tax increase.
The need for diversity in housing has been part of the community discussion in Hamilton for more than a decade, said Johnson, with town-approved bylaw changes that address the town’s need for new growth; for young families to maintain a strong school system; and for downsizing seniors who want to stay in town.
“Everybody understands that there’s a revenue component, there’s a social obligation component, there’s vitality of community,” Johnson said. “We just need to show people how this property helps achieve a lot of those objectives.”
Others are less convinced. In public meetings there has been vocal opposition, some from Hamilton’s influential equestrian community.
Bruce Wadleigh, of the fiscal watchdog group Enough is Enough, noted that he counted 39 people in the Town Hall meeting room May 23 — most of them opposed — when the Board of Selectmen approved the Special Town Meeting vote to buy the land.
“It was the largest crowd of people I’ve seen for a meeting like that,” said Wadleigh, whose group is not taking a position.
Hamilton resident Josh Lerner said he has concerns. A professor at Harvard Business School, Lerner is also the author of the 2009 book “Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Efforts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed — and What to Do About It.”
“This is an area of a fair amount of interest to me, and when this came up in our own backyard it was hard not to pay attention to what was taking place,” Lerner said. “My real worry is that this essentially is a high-risk proposition with – even with the most optimistic numbers – very little reward.
“There’s a real danger of a hung project sitting out there, not generating any tax revenue under town ownership,” Lerner said. “It could be a real albatross around the town’s neck and, from my perspective around the taxpayers’ neck, for quite a few years to come.”
Lerner also noted that most “smart growth” programs recommend placing affordable, senior, and high-density projects closer to the hub of town activity and transportation. The Pirie property is more than a mile from downtown.
Another concern is losing the equestrian trail that runs across Pirie’s land from one private parcel to another, according to Susanna Colloredo-Mansfield, cofounder of the Essex County Trail Association.
“If there are playing fields, you’re not going to be riding your horse through a playing field,” she said.
“There are so many unknowns with this, and that’s the worry with me, more than anything else. We have something very definite that is going to produce — almost immediately — good tax money to the town from these six houses. From the town, we don’t know what they’re going to propose.”
Some argue that this is a debate between elitism vs. community needs, and that many of the opponents come from the same faction that has objected as the town has gone through the process of approving zoning bylaws specifically for an opportunity like this.
“Such bylaws have been consistently opposed by the less socially conscious of our equestrian community, just as they are now opposing the town purchase of the Pirie Property,” said Selectwoman Jennifer Scuteri via e-mail. “[They] are more concerned about private space remaining private and less concerned about our schools and the revenue needed to keep them high-performing. Such equestrians want open fields preserved for their use and not by our lacrosse or soccer players.”
Community advocate Margo Killoran said they aren’t all equestrians, but there is a faction in town that wants to “control the process, to preserve the quality of life in Hamilton. They don’t understand that the quality of life for a significant portion of Hamilton is not too great right now.”
SaveHamilton is a group advocating against the town’s plan and it wants to preserve open space, specifically the Aquila Farm.
Lerner, who wrote a report posted on the SaveHamilton website called “The Pirie Property: A Major Financial Risk for Hamilton,” stated that the town’s estimates on the tax benefits are overly optimistic. Johnson, the aldermen chairman, countered that at a minimum – after school expenses are accounted for – the town should take in $275,000 more annually under its plan than under the private developer’s plan.
Citing Hamilton’s high property tax rate of $17.17 per $1,000 in valuation, housing advocate Fred Mills said creating housing opportunities can bring in revenues and balance the community structure.
“These properties come up very, very rarely, and when they come up, the town has a history of not acting,” said Mills. “That history of not acting has been a driving force in creating one of the largest tax rates on the North Shore.”
“We have relatively significant tax inequity,” Mills said. “Very wealthy people live on very large pieces of land and are able to take advantage of agricultural tax advantages, specifically 61A. Their taking advantage of those opportunities places a larger burden on those of us that live in more modest homes, so we end up paying a high tax, and the large landowners pay a lower tax rate, and the town ends up having a climbing, unsustainable tax structure.”
Johnson said that six developers reviewed conceptual designs with the advisory panel Pirie Property Working Group, and were asked for input and whether they would have an interest if the town sought proposals. The response was favorable, he said.
“They had a design and asked me to look at it, and asked me for some thoughts and some values,” said Jeff Rhuda, CEO for Beverly-based developer Symes Associates Inc. “My thoughts were, if everything was the way they were presenting, what I thought my company would pay for it was well north of what they’re going to buy the property for.”
The Special Town Meeting is scheduled for June 11 at the Winthrop Elementary School, 325 Bay Road, at 7:30 p.m., and the article will need a two-thirds majority for approval. The deadline for voter registration is Friday at the town clerk’s office at Town Hall. The office will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.David Rattigan can be reached at DRattigan.Globe@gmail.