Bill allows Waltham to buy Fernald site for $3.7m
Following years of tumult and a slowly dwindling number of residents at the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center, state lawmakers approved a bill last week allowing Waltham to buy the nearly 200-acre state property off Trapelo Road for a discounted price of $3.7 million.
The bill, which passed just before the legislative session ended last Thursday, still needs a signature from Governor Deval Patrick to take effect. However, local legislators say they expect him to sign it soon, noting that his office has been deeply involved in the acquisition process.
State and local officials hailed the passage of the bill, which calls for the city to have the funds lined up by the end of next month.
“In the closing hours of the session, every legislator has a local priority or two. Fernald was mine,” said state Senator Mike Barrett, a Lexington Democrat who also represents part of Waltham. “Your anxiety level starts to spike as the minutes run down. I’m glad we got it through. It’s a win for Waltham.”
Allowing Waltham to buy the parcel — considered prime real estate — not only protects the land from developers, but also gives city officials control over the property, which has a mix of older buildings and open space set on rolling hills.
“The people of Waltham have the property now — nobody else,” said Mayor Jeannette McCarthy. “That to me is the best result we can have, because the people of Waltham can now go through the process to determine what will happen to it.”
The state announced plans a decade ago to shut Fernald, the nation’s oldest institution serving people with developmental disabilities, and similar facilities by 2010, citing savings and a shift in focus against institutionalization, with the aim to provide a better life for residents in other settings. State officials attempted to relocate the roughly 150 Fernald residents, but were blocked in court by relatives who said forcing them to move after decades at the facility would be traumatic.
In the intervening years, Fernald’s population steadily became smaller. With the transfer of four residents this summer, officials said, there are just two remaining, and they will stay under the care of the state Department of Developmental Services as the city moves forward with the land acquisition.
“Two individuals at Fernald have pending appeals and the department is actively working with their guardians to develop plans for placement in keeping with our commitment to Community First principles,” said agency spokesman Alec Loftus, referring to the state initiative that encourages community-based residential programs for people with disabilities.
State Representative John Lawn Jr., a Watertown Democrat who represents a portion of Waltham, said the agreement also calls for keeping open a swimming pool used by the residents. “That is something we felt strongly about,” he said.
State Representative Tom Stanley, a Waltham Democrat who said he has worked on the legislation for 14 years, called its passage “a historic event in Waltham,” adding that the site “will play a large role in the future of our city.”
He said the city has a number of options on how to use the property, such as building a high school, restoring wetlands to alleviate flooding, or even allowing limited residential development, which would help the city offset any cleanup costs.
“There are costs involved here,” Stanley said. “It might be prudent to try and recoup some of it, keeping in mind that the community does not want that area to be overburdened with development or traffic.”
McCarthy said the City Council has already formed a new Fernald use committee, which will gear up after the sale closes. The committee will likely listen to suggestions from city residents on what should be done with the land.
The state is offering the land for a price that Stanley dubbed “dirt cheap” and McCarthy called “unbelievable,” noting that its market value likely stretches into tens of millions of dollars. However, the deal’s terms call for the state to receive up to 50 percent of net proceeds if the city leases or resells any portion of the land. The city’s share would rise if it takes certain steps set out by the state to redevelop the property, according to the deal.
Under the bill, Waltham has until Sept. 30 to come up with the $3.7 million to buy the property. The city may pay for it with Community Preservation Act funds, or bonds from its general budget, officials said.
McCarthy has an application before the city’s Community Preservation Committee to cover the purchase price, but some councilors worry that using the funds would place too stringent restrictions on the use of the land. Money raised through the Community Preservation Act program, which combines a property tax surcharge with matching state funds, can be used only for affordable housing, recreation, open space, and historical preservation projects.
Stanley said that if the city used bonds to purchase the property, a few million dollars “is not a huge amount of money” out of a budget that reaches about $200 million annually.
“The greater issue is whether the community wants to restrict all the use of the property to CPA uses only, or retain some ability to recoup the costs of attaining the property,” he said.