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Town Meeting to decide on camp land acquisition

September 11, 2014

The Walpole Sewer and Water Commission will seek Town Meeting approval in October to acquire 24 acres of property, currently owned by the Sharon Country Day Camp on Common Street, to protect the town’s aquifer from over-development.

The purchase would cost $4.5 million and would be funded primarily through an increase in water rates for all water users in town. In the first year of a 20-year bond, the average water ratepayer, using 12,000 cubic feet of water per year, would see a $70 annual increase in their water bill. This equates to about a 12-14 percent jump in the first year.

The Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection would also provide a grant to the town of about $300,00 to pay for the purchase.

Because water rates are not subject to the state’s Proposition 2.5 statute, which limits the annual increase in the property tax levy, the higher rates for the purchase would not have to face a town-wide vote in order to go into effect. Town Meeting must approve the purchase by a 2/3 majority in order for it to pass, as with all Town Meeting votes to take on debt.

In past years, water rates have typically increased by between 2 and 5 percent each year.

In a joint meeting with the Finance Committee Monday night, Sewer and Water Commissioners said purchasing the land would prevent a developer from acquiring it instead and potentially endangering one of the town’s most important wells located close by.

“I don’t think we will ever see a property that is as valuable to us than this,” said Chairman John Spillane.

Interim Town Administrator Jim Johnson said that the current owners of the property have received a competing, higher offer from a housing developer to build hundreds of housing units on the site. The developer is not looking to put in a 40B, however, which some residents had feared.

The camp, which operated for 51 years at the same location near the Walpole-Sharon town line, closed for good in February due to the passing of one of its owners. Mr. Johnson said that the owners prefer to see the site purchased by the town, rather than a developer, even though the developer is apparently offering significantly more money for the property. The owners were unwilling to give it up for less than $4.5 million, even though its market value is assessed at less than $1 million.

Mr. Johnson said both he and Selectmen Chairman Mark Gallivan had seen correspondence between the developer and the owner confirming that the developer was in fact offering more money for the property than the town.

Some Finance Committee members at Monday’s meeting asked the Commission whether they could use some of their retained earnings to pay for the purchase, instead of increasing rates. The Commission currently holds $2.1 million in their sewer enterprise funds and $1.2 million in their water enterprise funds – money that Commissioner Pat Fasanello said has been saved through frugality in the department over the years.

But Sewer and Water Superintendent Rick Mattson said he would not recommend the Commission use that money for the purchase, because of other large water-related projects, including treatment of a well on Washington St., coming up in the near future that are expected to cost millions of dollars.

Precinct 5 RTM Bill Hamilton, who attended Monday night’s meeting as an audience member, asked the town officials present if they had considered purchasing the property through eminent domain, which would only require the town to pay market value. But officials said the potential legal costs associated with that might make the deal even more expensive, and would also generate unnecessary animosity toward the town from the property owner.

Though sewer and water rates are not affected by Proposition 2.5, state law and the town charter both prohibit the Sewer and Water Commission from acquiring any land for the purposes of preserving the aquifer without the permission of the DEP. In exchange for allowing Walpole to acquire the property, the DEP will impose certain limits on the use of the property to ensure that the well is protected. For example, the town would likely not be able to build playing fields on the property because fertilizer might contaminate the well. The town will also be largely prevented from constructing new buildings or changing the property in any significant way.

The land is in the town’s Water Resource Protection Overlay District, which already restricts development for private developers. Unless the developer intends to construct a 40B, which can override zoning laws, the developer would be restricted to single-family units. This would seem to conflict with the developer’s apparent intention of putting in hundreds of apartment units at the site.

The property borders the Town Forest, and has a small swimming and boating pond, along with several acres of woodlands, 28 cabins, and athletic courts. Commissioners said they would support leasing the property out to another camp once they purchase it, if possible, or they would simply keep the property as is for recreational purposes.

Mr. Johnson said that while Selectmen are supportive of purchasing the property, they recognize that it might “hurt” their proposed facilities override, which is also expected to come up on the Fall Town Meeting warrant. Some RTMs may not be willing to support both projects taking on so many higher taxes and fees for their constituents.

Mr. Johnson said Selectmen have not considered purchasing the property on their own through a Proposition 2.5 debt exclusion override. Because of their ability to raise rates, the Sewer and Water Commission is the only town board that has the ability to pay for the purchase at this time without the need for an override, he said.

Precinct 8 RTM Joe Moraski said at Monday’s meeting that he wants the Commission to clearly define in the Town Meeting article that they will not impose a separate flat surcharge on ratepayers for the purchase, as opposed to simply increasing water bills by a percentage. A flat surcharge would be unfair because it requires low water users, such as senior citizens living alone, to pay the same amount as bigger water users, like businesses, Mr. Moraski argued. The Commission said they had already voted to increase water bills by a percentage, and could reword the warrant article to commit to it.

Mr. Johnson said the camp will be open for visit by residents and town officials on at least three separate occasions prior to Fall Town Meeting. The first availability to see the property will be September 27 at 10 a.m.

Even though the camp has always been called the Sharon Country Day Camp, it is entirely in Walpole though it borders Sharon.

Join the discussion on the Sharon Country Day Camp acquisition at WalpoleWords.

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