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Tri-Town resists auditor’s criticism

Board cites recent progress, economy

The officials guiding the redevelopment of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station are resisting the state auditor’s call for a shakeup, and at least one is blaming the developer for the slow pace of construction.

The five members of the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp.’s board of directors will gather at 9 a.m. Monday for their regularly scheduled meeting, but it will be anything but regular.

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The meeting will take place less than a week after a scathing report by the office of State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump, who criticized the management of the project and called for changes in the board. Some members said the findings are already out of date and that the project is now moving ahead.

“We’ve done more in five years than any other board prior to us,” said Rockland’s deputy police chief, Gerard Eramo, a Tri-Town board member who is up for reappointment this year. “That’s what’s really aggravating people. Certain people expected we’d fall on our face, and we didn’t. This board is dedicated to the community and to seeing SouthField happen.”

SouthField is a mixed-use development emerging at the decommissioned South Weymouth Naval Air Station, which occupies parts of Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth. Since it was created by the Legislature in 1998, Tri-Town has been in the unique position of being a quasi-public agency responsible for acting as the municipality of SouthField and overseeing the redevelopment of the property.

Originally scheduled for completion by 2017, SouthField was supposed to include 2,855 homes, 2 million feet of commercial space, an 18-hole golf course, a movie studio complex, and athletic facilities. But so far, only homes have been built.

Eramo faults the master developer of SouthField, LNR Property LLC, for not marketing the commercial part of SouthField enough, and for failing to cooperate with Tri-Town and provide financial and logistical support needed to get the job done.

In response, LNR spokesman Bill Ryan said, “In addition to the $90 million LNR has invested, at least an additional $150 million of private investment has been realized to date because of LNR’s efforts.”

Ryan said that development of the site, particularly in this market, requires basic public services such as water, wastewater, and public infrastructure. “What’s important to do for all of us — this is a partnership — is create an environment for sustained, continued public/private investment in this site, which we are committed to doing,” he said.

He added that LNR is currently paying $1.5 million a year in real estate taxes on undeveloped property, “so no one is more financially motivated to develop this property than us.”

Eramo, who was appointed to the Tri-Town’s board of directors in 2008, also said that the town of Rockland had received $2.2 million from SouthField, and the project has survived one of the country’s worst recessions.

But the state auditor’s office views it differently. After examining the board’s financial records from 2008 to 2011, the audit found that Tri-Town had not yet developed formal plans to finance water and sewer systems and other infrastructure needed to complete the project on time.

“The lack of financial planning jeopardizes the project’s completion,” Bump said in a telephone interview shortly after the report was released. “The fact that this has not been a priority of the board is first of all evident because it was not discussed at board meetings and is a symptom that the board lacks the necessary experience and expertise to get this job done.”

Tri-Town officials have noted that the audit covered only from 2008 to 2011, and said that much progress has been made since then. Tri-Town now has its own chief executive officer and chief financial officer, and the agency now has the ability to collect real estate taxes — which wasn’t the case a few years ago.

“Some of the areas they were concerned about have been resolved,” said John R. Ward, a former selectman and retired banker from Rockland who serves on Tri-Town’s board.

Ward also noted that for much of the time covered by the audit, the country was in a recession, and the collapse of the real estate market slowed development.

“It’s been quite a struggle for a number of years [due to] the whole scope and complexity of the project, and in the middle of it . . . the recession didn’t help,” said Ward. “We’ve overcome a lot of obstacles to get where we are today.”

Ward questioned the calls for new leadership on Tri-Town’s board and said he was never interviewed by anyone from the state auditor’s office.

“No auditor had a discussion with me,” said Ward. “If you’re going to be critical of the board, why not talk to all of the members?”

One thing is for sure: Any changes to Tri-Town’s board of directors won’t happen overnight, because the makeup of the board is mandated by legislation. Each of the five members is appointed to a five-year term by his or her town (two are appointed by Weymouth’s mayor; two by Rockland’s selectmen, and one by Abington selectmen).

For that to change, legislation would have to be passed, said Kevin R. Donovan, Tri-Town’s chief executive officer.

The state report, released May 13, comes at a time of transition for the master developer of SouthField. LNR Property LLC this spring was acquired by Starwood Property Trust, a publicly traded company, and Starwood Capital Group, a private investment firm based in Greenwich, Conn.

Donovan said he will be meeting with Starwood officials to discuss SouthField, “then we’ll get a clearer idea of what their plans are.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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