Skittish over a lawsuit filed by a developer, Bridgewater’s financial partners have backed away from the town’s plan to buy 144 wooded acres along the Taunton River for open space, putting the initiative in jeopardy.
Still on the table is the $3.5 million property known as Child’s Bridge Farm, owned by the Perkins family under the Calthrop Trust. Town Manager Troy Clarkson said three conservation groups, which had committed $875,000 toward the purchase, want the court case resolved before they turn over the money.
“I think that’s still where they’re at,’’ Clarkson said.
The tug-of-war over the property has pitted the town of Bridgewater against its state representative, Angelo D’Emilia, who wants to develop the site for housing.
D’Emilia’s interest in the property dates to 2003. He signed a purchase-and-sale agreement to buy it for $3.5 million last summer and planned to build 97 houses there.
The town, however, was given first option to buy because the farm had enjoyed tax breaks for its agricultural classification. Last October, Bridgewater’s Town Council voted to exercise the purchase option, after receiving promises of financial support from Calthrop trustee Faelton Perkins, who pledged his $800,000 in sale proceeds, and from three land conservation groups - Wildlands Trust, the Nature Conservancy, and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation - which together committed $875,000.
Local Community Preservation Act funding would pick up the remaining $1.8 million needed for the purchase.
The deal between the town and the trust was set to close March 5, but was stalled for a month after D’Emilia filed for an injunction in Brockton Superior Court to block the closing. The injunction request was denied in late March, and the closing between the town and trustees was slated to go forward April 5.
But when Clarkson contacted the conservation groups the day before closing, asking for their pledge money, “they said they wanted to see the legal issues resolved before they provided the funding,’’ he said.
When Bridgewater officials could not produce the cash on April 5, the trustees took the deal off the table and returned the town’s $1,000 deposit. In a letter to officials, attorney Jerome Fletcher said that the trustees, named defendants along with Bridgewater in D’Emilia’s lawsuit, are also concerned about the pending court case.
D’Emilia’s attorney, Mark Bourbeau, said D’Emilia now hopes to marshal support from past investors and step back into the purchase, adding, “We say Angelo should get a reasonable amount of time to perform.’’ D’Emilia’s purchase-and-sale agreement expired last fall.
Perkins said D’Emilia had already received extra time from trustees. “They offered him another few days to purchase, and he didn’t respond,’’ Perkins said. “His time has gone by, so he’s out of it.’’
But the developer’s lawsuit continues. In court documents, D’Emilia contends that he sank “hundreds of thousands of dollars’’ into plans for the 97-house project. He asks the court to force the trustees to follow through on the deal they made with him.
Bourbeau said the suit seeks damages if the sale of the land to D’Emilia falls apart. “Cutting Angelo out was never a good thing for the town to do,’’ he said.
Marilee Hunt, chairwoman of the Bridgewater Community Preservation Committee, said the money from the conservation partners is still committed to the town. She blames Clarkson for failing to give the town’s conservation partners enough notice.
“They got an e-mail at 7 p.m. April 4 asking that they wire the money,’’ Hunt said. “If we had done better process, it might have worked. If they were notified sooner, they might have agreed.’’
Clarkson, who will work his last day in Bridgewater Friday and then take over as Hanover’s town manager, said the court did not notify the town of the injunction denial until April 2 or 3. “What Marilee said is just fiction,’’ he said.
Clarkson said not everyone was sad to see the deal to buy the farm fall through. “Many folks that were committed to the purchase are disappointed, but others not so much,’’ he said. “The Town Council had been divided in its opinion on it, and so were the townspeople.’’
Hunt said she still hopes the town can buy the land.
“Right now there is no purchase and sale either for the town or D’Emilia,’’ she said. “We’re back to square one, only we have a lot of acrimony we didn’t have before, and a lot of work has been wasted.’’
Hunt recently announced plans to run against D’Emilia for his legislative seat this fall.
“It was something that I’ve wanted to do for a while,’’ she said, adding that her decision to enter the race was not motivated by the tiff over Child’s Bridge Farm. “But I also think D’Emilia, being a developer in town, has too many opportunities for conflict of interest to be the local rep.’’
D’Emilia did not return a call requesting comment.