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Woodworkers Override – VOTE NO – Part 3

May 23, 2011

Part 3 of 3

On June 4, Walpole voters will be asked to decide whether they want a tax override to purchase a portion of the Walpole Woodworkers property on East Street.

I will leave this ballot question blank. Because I am not a property taxpayer, I do not feel comfortable voting to affect everybody else’s property taxes for a project I won’t have to pay for myself.

However, I urge voters to vote NO on this override.

I will note that I think the Board of Selectmen deserves credit for engaging residents for an open and honest discussion about this ballot question throughout the last few months. The Board has held numerous public meetings to answer questions from town residents, and this clearly took a lot of work and effort on the Board’s part. The Town Administrator and Selectmen answered residents’ questions concisely and directly, without lecturing them.

I changed my mind frequently on this issue during the past several months. The Board made a good case for why we should buy the land. While there are certainly benefits to the acquisition of this property, I ultimately decided I was opposed. I may change my mind again, in fact.

If the voters do end up approving the purchase of the property and it turns out not to be contaminated as some in town fear, I will be just as happy as anyone else at Town Hall that the purchase went through.

Last week, I gave my first reason to oppose the project, and yesterday I offered a second reason.

Here is a third reason:

Land Use

Another concerning aspect of this proposal is that while town officials keep insisting the purchase of this property will provide a vast amount of space for a variety of potential uses, nobody at Town Hall has yet been able to identify exactly what the best use of this site would be. As part of the $4.7 million override package, the town intends to spend $180,000 after the land has been purchased on a study to determine what can be located on the site.

We have seen this before.

The town has spent a lot of money and devoted a lot of resources over the years on municipal buildings studies. We have seen multiple committees come and go that have engaged in municipal planning and promptly had their recommendations ignored, rejected, or put on the back burner. In 2007, we had a committee specifically tasked with finding a place for a public safety complex have their proposals ignored and their chairman resign in frustration.

There are a plethora of hypotheticals related to what the land could be used for, and there is no guarantee it will become a police station, which is what we all hope. I do not trust the town and do not feel comfortable with doing the planning after the purchase.

For example, if the study for the Woodworkers site concludes that the only possible use for the site is new athletic fields and perhaps a DPW shed, there are a lot of taxpayers who would justifiably be rather upset at the notion of their tax dollars going down the drain simply so we have more space for sports and storage. If the study concludes that the site can only be used for a school (not out of the realm of possibility given that most other schools in town are sited on similarly-sized acreages), the site would likely not be usable for many decades down the road, when the town finally has the money and enrollment figures to build a new school.

It would be a tremendous disappointment if the study concluded that the site only has limited use for a few specific town facilities, such as a senior center or school, while a police station does not make it on the list for whatever reason and the town has no other land for the station to use. What is the town to do then? We will be back to square one, with no more town land and no more empty land to purchase, along with a police station that is falling apart. Where will we put the police station?

Before the town buys the land, taxpayers deserve to know what exactly their money will be used to buy the land for. If the only purpose is for athletic fields and a senior center, most in Walpole would likely and rightly be against it, yet the current proposal requires that no one know the site’s use until after the override passes. The uncertainty is reason enough to oppose it.

If the town is genuinely looking for a site for a new senior center or police station, any number of sites will do. For example, with the new library expected to open its doors in early September, ahead of schedule and so far under budget, there has been no mention whatsoever during the past few months about what the soon-to-be old library on Common Street will become.

The issue of the old library has not even been on the Board of Selectmen’s agenda since September, which is a very serious problem given that the library will become vacant in just a few short months. A study recently concluded that the site could not be used for senior housing, but the Board has failed to convey that fact to residents of the neighborhood around the old library and has also failed to openly discuss with residents potential other uses for the building despite repeated promises to do so.

At a time when Selectmen keep claiming we don’t have enough facilities for our town departments, the lack of a clear plan for reusing the old library, just a few months away from when it will become vacant, is not only worrisome but also shows how LOW long-term planning really is on the Board’s priorities list.

If Selectmen can not even come up with a plan for the old library, how can residents expect this Board to come up with a plan for the Woodworkers property that makes sense? It would be a shame for the town to pass up an opportunity to properly utilize the old library, a facility that is already town-owned, located on a prime piece of real estate just a block from downtown.

In addition, the old Foundry building in downtown is currently for sale, and its downtown location might be a reasonable site for a public safety complex or similar facility. Yet the Board has not even bothered to examine opportunities for this site, nor has it conducted a genuine study into whether any other central locations are equally suitable, such as the Kahana or the South Street superfund site which is soon to be cleaned up and could perhaps be taken by the town through tax seizure.

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