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Some thoughts on the Walpole Woodworkers proposal

January 31, 2011

For the third year in a row, Walpole voters will be asked to weigh in on an override question this June. The Board of Selectmen revealed last week that they are pursuing a plan to put an override on this year’s town election ballot to purchase Walpole Woodworkers land on East Street to build new municipal buildings there in the future.

The plan, while sounding sensible on paper, is not likely to make it past the ballot box in June if town officials do not start working now to educate voters and to develop a clear plan for what they want to do with the property.

It is quite true that the town is rapidly running out of land for town building construction. Town-owned land on Robbins Road has been rejected by voters, twice, as a potential location for a new police station, and with a strong political action group called Walpole 2020 behind them, Robbins Road residents are likely to push very hard, just as they did last year, against any plans to put other municipal buildings there.

Meanwhile, a proposal to put a senior center on DPW land on Washington Street suggested by Selectman David Sullivan last year is unlikely to come to fruition, as seniors have such a small voting bloc to pass an override, and efforts to raise private donations for a building there do not appear to be going well.

In addition, the town now lacks any open land downtown due to the construction of the new Walpole Public Library and the revitalization of Stone Field. The only potential location for a new municipal building downtown would be the current site of the Walpole Library on Common Street (full disclosure alert), but Selectmen appear to be moving forward, for some odd reason, with a study for senior housing at that location, and proposals to convert it to a senior center do not appear to be gaining any traction at Town Hall.

So with no space left downtown, and no apparent townwide appetite for using town owned land on Washington Street or Robbins Road for future building needs, the logical next choice is to purchase new land.

From a realistic point of view, the plan Selectmen are pushing, which calls for purchasing the land first and then building on it at a later date, requires coordinated long-term planning. Even if voters approve the purchase of the land this year, it could be many years before Walpole voters again have the willingness to again vote yes on an override to actually build on the land. The land could thus sit vacant for years until a future Board with a future Town Administrator are able to come up with a construction plan for the site that would win approval by voters. Based on residents’ apparent opposition to tax overrides – the only successful override of the past few years, for the library in 2009, passed by only a few votes – residents may be unwilling to support the construction of any new buildings on the land for a long time even if they already voted to purchase the land.

In a poll published on 180 last spring, 90% of Walpole residents said they felt the town lacked a sense of vision and did not appear to be responsibly planning for the future. The results indicate that it would be in Town Hall’s best interest to start planning now for what exactly that land will become once it is acquired. Town officials could easily fall into the trap of asking voters to approve the purchase of the East Street land, but then having no answer for the residents who will claim the land is being purchased at a bad economic time, and will only sit vacant for years to come. The vacant property could become a symbol of government excess in the coming years if Town Hall does not act now to create a strong vision for the parcel to present directly to voters now.

Judging by the way that Town Hall often has difficulty actually listening to residents, Walpole citizens should not be surprised if the Board decides to just plow right through and try shoving the plan down voters throats just as they have done on so many other issues. The result will be a ballot question that fails. Every resident should carefully watch to see what route our municipal leaders take with this proposal – will they take the in-touch road and actually talk to residents and show them a strong vision for the future, or will they ram it down residents’ throats, lecturing them along the way? The task for Selectmen during the next several months leading up to June 4 will be to educate voters and to provide honest, forthright answers about the town’s building needs.

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