Wilmington farm land development debate

A proposed development on a large 68-acre farm in Wilmington caused quite a stir at a recent Town Meeting. The proposed development would have built 210 units (above rendering) on the site and dedicated 40 units to Wilmington’s affordable housing stock. The Town Meeting vote ultimately fell short of the two-thirds votes necessary to pass the zoning change.

One of the most discussed issues in Wilmington over the winter and spring has been the fate of Sciarappa Farm, located at 333 Andover St. at the Andover line. It is a 68 acre parcel of land where 62.5 acres lie in Wilmington.

The property has been in the Sciarappa family “for nearly 100 years,” Attorney William F. Crowley, of Reading, who represents the Sciarappa family, wrote in a letter to the editor back in early April, “and it’s operated as a farm for most of that time.”

Over the past decade, the family has received multiple offers to purchase the land, Crowley stated in his letter.

Local developer Michael Welch entered a warrant article for Town Meeting that would have rezoned the parcel in which the land is located to Neighborhood Mixed Use.

The change would have allowed for the proposed building of 210 one or two-bedroom residences on the 68 acre property. The proposal also included approximately 40 residences to be designated as “affordable housing” which would have raised Wilmington’s much needed affordable housing percentage.

Because Sciarappa Farm is considered private property, the family has the right to sell the land to anyone. However, the family received tax benefits from the town, as the land had been used for farming/farm-related activities. Therefore, Mass. General Law Ch. 61a says that in a situation where a property receives tax benefits due to it being a working farm or otherwise engaged in farming activity, the town has first right of refusal should a developer attempt to purchase the land. (The farm was removed from the 61a designation in 2014, according to Town Manager Jeffrey Hull and Crowley, and, therefore, stopped receiving any tax breaks.)

The town would then have the opportunity to purchase the property itself. According to Attorney Crowley, the town never took the step to purchase the land, even though it had been noticed over the past several years that others were interested in the property.

“None of the offers were ever consummated,” Crowley wrote in his letter, “but the town had been on notice of the owners’ desire to sell.”

He went on to state that no one from the town had ever made the Sciarappa family an offer to buy the property. That could have all changed, though.

Long-time Selectman Michael McCoy stated his concerns over the past few months that a large volume of condos could be built on that site if the developer reneged on the deal.

In an unusual step McCoy pushed for a Special Town Meeting to be conducted before the regular Town Meeting back on May 5.

McCoy’s two warrant articles were apparently designed to stop the development of the privately owned land.

The articles were to a) allow the town to purchase the Sciarappa Farm property and b) eliminate multi-family housing in central business and neighborhood mixed-use districts of town.

Instead, Town Meeting rejected both of the Special Town Meeting articles.

Hull had stated at a previous Board of Selectmen meeting that it would cost millions to purchase the property. Town Meeting found out the exact number was $8.4M. There was also no set plan for the land had Town Meeting authorized the board to purchase it. Suggestions were made, such as open space, recreation, and/or using it for municipal facilities.

None of those options would help the town add to its affordable housing stock. Mass law states that all communities must designate 10 percent of its housing stock as affordable to those making 80 percent of the area median income. Currently, Wilmington is above the number, but that could always change once new census data is released.

Before Town Meeting had the opportunity to vote, the selectmen were divided over whether they should even put this option on the table. McCoy and Selectmen Ed Loud and Kevin Caira all favored giving Town Meeting the chance to approve or reject the purchase, but chair Michael Champoux voted against it (Selectman Gregory Bendel abstained).

In fact, the decision to put this before Town Meeting surprised the Town Manager. As the vote came one month before Town Meeting, Town Manager Hull noted there were some major hurdles to clear including appraising the property and other legal steps.

Champoux, while voting against having the Special Town Meeting (at least having it before regular Town Meeting), said he wanted to keep options open and wanted to know what residents desired. He felt a Special Town Meeting should be called after regular Town Meeting and after Welch’s rezoning article. As it turned out, developer Welch’s rezoning article was indefinitely postponed.

Had Town Meeting approved the second article of Special Town Meeting and allowed the town to spend $8.4M on the Sciarappa property, how would the town have paid for it? After sitting down with the Town Accountant and Principal Assessor, the board learned of several ways they could fund the purchase: borrowing money, which Town Accountant Michael Morris said the town doesn’t have the resources to authorize based on the 2019 budget, using Free Cash, which he noted would drop it to “a rather low level,” raise Capital Stabilization funds, which would be a one-time expense and would reduce the money available for building upgrades, or borrow funds, which could be either involve a bond anticipation note or a debt-exclusion override, i.e. asking residents to support raising their taxes by potentially one percent.

Hull said buying the property could wind up a “zero-sum game.” It could put a burden on other important items like pension liability and municipal buildings.

“It’s not to say the property can’t be purchased,” Hull acknowledged back in late April, “but it’s to point out that there are consequences to that purchase.”

However, during the Special Town Meeting, Selectman McCoy noted that the town wasn’t under any obligation to purchase the land, even if the article authorizing them to do so passed. The article merely allowed the board to make an offer on the property.

Before Town Meeting ultimately voted against allocating $8.4M for the board to purchase Sciarappa Farm, talk began that Welch would buy the land, then flip it to another developer (probably for more money) who would then proposed a much larger development than the 210 one- and two-bedroom units being currently proposed.

Town Meeting’s vote shows that residents either didn’t believe the rumors or were willing to fight back against a bigger development, if one arose, rather than allow the town to expend $8.4M on the deal. That assumes, of course, the selectmen wouldn’t have sold the land to a developer of their own choosing in hopes of recouping some of the town’s money.

The main reason that McCoy even desired purchasing the property concerned his belief that there isn’t much space left in town.

“God’s not making any more property,” he said several times in the lead up to and during the Special Town Meeting.

Welch seemed surprised at a recent selectmen’s meeting when he heard the board may have interest in buying the farmland. He noted that the property has been vacant for quite some time. He wondered what plans the town had for it.

“It’s been sitting vacant for years and years, then somebody comes up with a proposal in the last two months and it’s like now we’ve got to buy this,” he remarked.

Even though selectmen like Loud eventually voted to have the Special Town Meeting, they didn’t all feel obligated to purchase the land. They also didn’t all agree with McCoy’s assessment that hundreds of units would be constructed there.

“I have a major problem with Mr. McCoy telling everybody in town that there’s going to be 760 apartments in there,” said Selectman Loud.

He didn’t believe the land was large enough nor that it could all be developed. He identified an easement through the property and 30 acres of wetland as limiting factors in the lands development potential.

Loud added that buying the land out from underneath someone else would be “awful.”

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