LAND BUY APPROVAL

LAND BUY APPROVAL - Town Meeting representatives last night approved the purchase of a single house lot off of Grove Street. The Conservation Commission has advanced a plan (rendering pictured above) to convert the parcel into a parking lot which can be utilized by Town Forest users.

READING – After narrowly voting against purchasing all five lots at Meadow Brook, Town Meeting members said yes Thursday night to acquiring one lot for $450,000.

The entire 3 ½-hour night was devoted to just one article, leaving three more for Monday. The lengthy discussion included criticism of the cost, our environmental crisis, the need for parking, the endangered blue spotted salamander and for a moment, a motion to buy three lots.

There were friendly amendments, substitute amendments, and as members twisted themselves into pretzels trying to make sense of it all, more Points of Order than you could count in the Zoom chat.

To understand the end, you have to understand where it started.

“Meadow Brook and Bancroft, with Bancroft the developer here, entered into a purchase and sale agreement to sell all five lots,” explained town counsel Ivria Fried. “The town, under Chapter 61B, Section 9, has an option to step into the shoes of the buyer and purchase all five lots. The case law is clear that we can’t exercise on only one of those lots or two of those lots, we need to step into the shoes of the buyer and buy all five of the lots. Bancroft came to the town and offered the town the ability to buy lot 5 only, for $450,000. Meadow Brook agreed to that.”

Town officials debated the initial offer to buy all five lots for $2.25 million and with Bancroft’s late offer to sell just one lot, the debate intensified. Buy all five? Buy one? Buy none? With next Wednesday the town’s deadline for making a decision, the debate finally reached Town Meeting.

Followers of Town Meeting might wonder how Article 9, the last article in the town warrant, leap-frogged Articles 6, 7 and 8. That’s because Town Meeting member Angela Binda moved to take Article 9 first, citing the timing constraints of the Wednesday deadline. By a 91-74 vote, Article 9 was moved up the ladder to Thursday night.

The debate started with a presentation by Conservation Commission chair Annika Scanlon who spoke in support of buying all five lots, citing the area’s vernal pools, wetlands, and endangered species habitat as well as the need for additional parking.

“It’s rare that we can buy back land and hold it in protection,” said Scanlon.

She added that the Conservation Commission voted 5-0 in support of purchasing all five lots, and if that failed, 5-0 in support of buying one lot. The Town Forest Committee did the same.

But the Finance Committee went a different direction, voting 7-1 against buying all five lots at their Wednesday meeting.

“It’s a lot of money for not much land,” said Finance Committee member Marianne Downing. “I cannot support this.”

Others agreed.

“Folks, this is not conservation. This is purchasing land and figuring it out later,” said Alicia Williams. “That is not fiscally responsible and not Town Meeting’s job.”

“We don’t buy land and say we’ll figure out what to do with it later,” said Michael Giacalone. “If you’re going to spend $2.25 million on land you need to know what it’s worth. It’s far too much money for me.”

But more spoke in support of the purchase than were opposed.

“We are living through an environmental crisis that’s getting worse by the minute,” said Theresa Wiggins. “The idea that we would pass this up is troubling to me.”

“It’s a once in a 100-year opportunity to add to the town forest,” said Select Board chair Karen Herrick.”

With 31 people waiting to speak, John Arena threw the second curveball of the night, proposing a substitute motion to just purchase lot 5, the lot closest to the entrance to the compost center and the one offered by the developer. Suddenly, as Moderator Alan Foulds said, “the game has changed.”

It meant members looking to debate purchasing all five lots were limited to debating purchasing one. It also meant an explanation from Foulds that confused many despite his efforts. Foulds said if Arena’s motion failed then members could again discuss purchasing all five lots. And if that failed, members could revisit purchasing lot 5. If it sounds confusing, you have

company.

But Arena’s motion lost, 106-64, meaning it was back to the original motion of purchasing all five lots. And the comments, mostly in support, kept coming.

“This is where we decompress. It’s where we flocked to during the pandemic,” said Helena Johnson. “It is beautiful in every season, especially now. I am strongly for the town buying this beautiful land.”

Bancroft Developer and Precinct 2 member Guy Manganiello moved to end debate but didn’t get enough votes and the debate continued.

During the discussion, Finance Committee chair Ed Ross made a friendly amendment to explain how the town would pay for the five lots. He said FinCom proposed $1.5 million in debt with $757,000 from free cash. Town Meeting approved, 133-33.

The discussion continued.

“It’s a question for us, what do we value as a town,” said Dave Talbot in support of the purchase. “Let’s save this for our kids and grandkids, for all the environmental and conservation purposes that have been articulated including keeping that stretch of road with that beautiful country lane feel.”

While most agreed with Talbot, it wasn’t enough. With 102 voting yes, 68 no, and 2 abstentions, the article fell 13 votes short of getting the needed 2/3rds. It also meant the option of buying just lot 5 was back on the table.

This time, said chair Ed Ross, the Finance Committee voted 8-0 in support of purchasing one lot for $450,000, all from free cash.

The third curveball of the night came from town meeting member Ian Brown. The Precinct 8 representative proposed buying three lots.

“I think one lot is insufficient for parking,” said Brown, in reaction to the plan to turn lot 5 into a parking area.

But the cost of three lots wasn’t clear and Fried reminded members that Bancroft was under no obligation to sell three lots. Town Meeting could do whatever it wanted, but legally it was all five or one. That became clear when Manganiello again spoke up.

“On behalf of Bancroft Estates, we will not engage in any negotiation beyond the one lot with the town.”

Shortly thereafter, Brown withdrew his motion.

With the one lot back in play, it was time to vote and the motion to purchase lot 5 passed, 121-40. At 10:52 p.m. Town Meeting members called it a night.

It’s back to work Monday with the water tower discussion the biggest of the three remaining articles.

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