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Middleborough

Officials eye shuttered campground for new town beach

Middleborough officials are exploring an option to buy a former 40-acre lakeside campground on Purchase Street to use as a public park and beach.

But before any real discussions can take place, selectmen say, the town needs to know whether a $2.5 million offer by a Berkley developer to build 40 units of affordable housing at the site is legitimate.

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Campground owners Barbara and Ralph Holton’s 30-year battle with the town over capacity at their Tispaquin Family Campground, and other issues, ended in June when a judge ordered the business to close.

The feud pitted local health officials — who say the property’s septic system can’t handle the volume — against the family, who say they are allowed to have 57 camp sites, not 57 individual campers, as the town and court have said.

Since then, the couple have put the land up for sale, and they recently announced that Malloch Construction wants to buy the parcel. But because the land is taxed at a discount as recreational property under the state’s Chapter 61B tax law, the town has the right of first refusal before the property is removed from the conservation program.

Middleborough officials had 30 days from the July 24 sale announcement to respond with interest, but selectmen said last week as the deadline loomed that they needed more time to examine details, including whether the asking price was fair.

Officials also are concerned with Malloch’s demand that its project under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable-housing law receives local zoning approval before that deal can be finalized.

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“Let’s make an informed choice,’’ Selectman Allin Frawley said. “That’s been my battle cry since this first came up.”

On its face, $2.5 million is too expensive, Frawley said, and he doesn’t think the town would go for it.

“It wouldn’t be worth it, for my money at least,” he said.

But if the cost came in lower, and grant or private funds from wildlife preservation agencies were found to offset the price and maintenance requirements, it would be a far more desirable option than the 40B housing proposal, Frawley said, describing the housing plan as “the worst possible scenario” that would itself drain town services and resources.

According to the assessor’s database, the property is appraised at $566,300 and assessed at $337,025, reflecting the discount offered under the state program. The Holtons purchased the property in 1984 for $140,000, documents show.

While some residents have questioned a land buy when the town needs a new high school, Frawley and other officials said the two issues are separate.

A request for an assessment of the crumbling 40-plus-year-old East Grove Street building is under consideration with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and a response is expected next year, they said.

Barbara Holton said the Malloch offer is valid and every offer to purchase land comes with contingencies: “What fool would buy something without them?’’ she said.

Holton said the town’s assessment of her property is low, as it should be, since it is considered vacant land, worth far less than house lots.

She said there is far greater value in the land from the town’s perspective, however, located adjacent to the 300-acre Weston Forest and the 2,954-acre Rocky Gutter Wildlife Management area, on Lake Tispaquin.

“The tourism that they could bring to this town, like we did, would be beneficial,” Holton said.

Open space would give families things to do, and a place to go, rather than sitting inside playing video games and watching TV, she said.

“There are also buildings that could be restored and rented to people for functions,’’ she said. “The town beach would only be one use for this property.”

Earlier this summer, Conservation Agent Patricia Cassady sent out surveys in gas and electric bills asking residents what recreational resources they would like to see. A town beach was one of the options, according to Cassady, who is updating Middleborough’s Open Space and Conservation Plan.

Of the 9,000 questionnaires distributed, just over 300 were returned, she said. Of those, 70 people said they were interested in a town beach.

The issue, however, got a far better response on the Facebook discussion page, “Middleborough Helping Middleborough,” where many residents said they never saw a survey. Others said they may have inadvertently tossed it out with other inserts that arrive in the bill.

Mel Murphy, a mother of two who lives on Center Street, said in an interview that she was amazed at the number of people who have no idea that a town beach is a possibility.

Murphy said that while the town does offer an Olympic-sized public pool for part of the summer, it is mostly used for swimming lessons and other programs, and some people just prefer lakes and ponds.

“I don’t know who they are surveying, but only a very few had any idea about this,’’ she said.

Other residents say the town should not be in the real estate business.

Frawley said town counsel Daniel Murray has been asked to research the offer.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.

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