Tuesday’s Special Town Meeting decision against Hamilton’s purchase of 86.5 acres is one that many voters will regret in both the long and the short term, the chairman of the Board of Selectmen says.
“It is a phenomenally large missed opportunity,” said Marc Johnson. “It will go down as a historic missed opportunity. The ability to have trails, parks, open [space], and achieve some revenue and housing is just not going to come back on the same scale and scope again.”
Town Meeting voters defeated the controversial proposal to authorize $4 million for the purchase of the 641 Bay Road property owned by Deirdre Pirie under Chapter 61A, the state law that, in exchange for agricultural tax breaks Hamilton granted the property, gave the town the right of first refusal when the land went up for sale.
Needing a two-thirds majority for approval, the proposal fell by a vote of 478 against to 391 in favor following about 90 minutes of debate.
“I was very surprised at the turnout,” said former selectman Dave Carey, a supporter of the plan. He expected 100 to come out in opposition, he said, though he wasn’t sure how many would support it. Instead, he said, “We just got crushed.”
Pirie has accepted an offer from UpperCross Development. The property has been subdivided into six lots for upscale homes, including two that are current homes on the property, and two barns that will be renovated into homes. A fifth lot will likely be used as a riding field, and a home may be built on the sixth lot.
While some note that the new homeowners will contribute more money to the town’s tax rolls, others say that much of the land will likely be eligible for continuing Chapter 61A tax relief.
Under the board’s plan, the town would have bought the land at the price offered by Pirie and sold it to a developer interested in following the town’s vision to create a parcel with clustered housing on 14 acres, a youth athletic field, and roughly 70 acres of open space that included expansion of equestrian trails into a public trail system.
The goal of the plan was to ensure public access to most of the land for recreational use, while diversifying the town’s housing stock to make it more affordable for young families and downsizing seniors who want to stay in town.
Currently, the average single-family home in Hamilton is assessed at $461,526 with a tax bill of $7,924, according to the state Department of Revenue.
Johnson said that because of low borrowing rates, the acquisition could have been accomplished without a property tax increase. The purchase was supported by the Finance and Advisory Committee.
The plan met with opposition, including the group SaveHamilton.org, which argued the town’s plan would change the character of the neighborhood, and that the town would regret getting involved in the real estate market.
Bill Dery, a member of the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee and the fiscal watchdog group Enough is Enough, also is a member of the Pirie Property Working Group, which created the town’s development plan.
Dery said members of the group were too optimistic in their projections and ignored issues such as two years of lost tax income as the town developed the plan, and the cost of maintaining the property.
“They put rose-colored glasses on and were only seeing what they wanted to,” he said.
“I’m totally against the town going into the real estate business,” said Dery. “The reason most people rejected it is the money.”
After the Special Town Meeting, Johnson said he was frustrated with Town Moderator Bruce Ramsey for not allowing the board to correct or respond to opponents’ charges.
“It was difficult for Town Meeting voters to understand the numbers,” said Selectwoman Jennifer Scuteri, a proponent of the town purchase.
Johnson acknowledged that proponents failed to gather enough support among constituencies that would benefit most, including senior citizens, supporters of the schools and youth sports, and Enough is Enough. The watchdog group stayed neutral, although its membership was split.
“In the end it came down to turnout, and those four groups did not turn out,” Johnson said.
“Two, three years from now, we are going to start missing the revenue stream that this could [create],” Johnson said. “Our costs are going up by 4 percent, revenue is going up by 0.5 or 0.8 percent, and that formula does not look good for our tax rate. We need to take real steps to structurally change that, and we can’t do it by squeezing expenses more and not cutting services.”