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Creative uses of land might help fund new facilities

June 11, 2013

The town’s much-talked about facilities study, released earlier this year by the Maguire Group, laid out a comprehensive blueprint for the town’s building needs, proposing a new police station and senior center on Washington Street and calling for new school buildings in the distant future, among other significant construction projects.

But the report, with an outline for almost $80 million in spending, left out one component that is perhaps the most important issue at play: how the town will pay for it all.

Since 2007, Walpole taxpayers have rejected one override after another for new facilities and land purchases – and the margins of defeat haven’t even been close. Local taxpayers, perhaps rightly so, have shown a strong aversion to raising taxes, even temporary increases for new buildings.

The town might not have a lot of money available for new buildings (though 180 has already pointed out potential other savings in the budget that could be useful), but the town does possess one major commodity that opens up major opportunities for solving the town’s facilities funding problems: a plethora of land. The town should explore using land swaps, in addition to selling off land, to generate revenue and additional space for new facilities.

That’s an idea already being pushed by newly-elected Selectman Cliff Snuffer. Good thing we elected him!

Selling off town land to generate revenue is not a new idea in Walpole. During the 1970s and 1980s, the town sold off a number of surplus properties, including the old Bird School on Washington Street and the old Fisher School on Main Street. More recently, the town sold off the old Walpole library, netting a $213,000 profit.

In 2011, at the Board of Selectmen’s request, town staff compiled a complete list of all town-owned parcels. Although many of those properties are landlocked or made up primarily of wetlands, some of the properties are located on residential streets and are suitable for development.

At the time that list of town-owned properties was compiled, Selectmen Chris Timson and Snuffer pushed for potentially selling off some of the properties, but nothing has been done about that in the two years since.

Now it might be time for the Board to revisit the issue and consider a controlled process of auctioning off certain properties for residential and other uses. Some of the parcels, if they are zoned or re-zoned accordingly, may be suitable for businesses and could generate significant tax revenue.

At his first meeting since being re-elected to the Board last week, Snuffer also proposed exploring land swaps with Norfolk County to obtain new land for either open space or new facilities. The County, through the Norfolk County Agricultural School, currently owns more than 300 acres in North Walpole. The town of Walpole, too, owns significant portions of land in the area around the Norfolk Aggie that the school might get more use from than the town would.

One piece of land in particular – the town-owned baseball field behind the old Fisher School on Main Street – is directly next to the Aggie’s property and would be more beneficial to them than it currently is to the town.

Last week, Selectmen rejected a request by the Norfolk Aggie to use that field for parking during the next school year, citing the impact on maintenance. But the Board is rightly acting on Snuffer’s suggestion that the town might start a conversation with the Aggie about potential land swaps. In addition to the the old baseball field, which is less than an acre, and other town-owned land that is near the Aggie, the town might be able to offer the County a package of several parcels of land that can be used for new facilities or more field space.

Since the town’s proposal to build a senior center on an aquifer on Washington Street is likely to face opposition from the Sewer and Water Commission and other advocates of protecting the aquifer, the town might seek the large field that the Aggie owns on Fisher Street near the intersection of Route 1A for a new senior center.

There are, obviously, always downsides to selling lots for new houses. When town growth explodes with new families, the school system and other town services are impacted negatively. But if the town takes a smart, managed, and gradual approach, and the lots are spread out around town in different school zones, town services won’t be impacted as harshly. The town should also focus on selling off parcels for business use first, before selling for residential use.

The Maguire Group’s report also proposes eventually selling off the South and East Walpole Fire Stations to provide opportunities for new businesses and more economic development. With these sales, along with the money from the recent sale of the old library, and the sale of several parcels of land, the town might be able to build at least one or two new facilities, including a police station, without the need to go back to taxpayers for more money. Imagine that.

At the very least, Selectmen should rule out putting any new debt exclusion override on a town election ballot for a new building until they have done a proper analysis of the potential of selling off town property and generating revenue. Snuffer is on to something.

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