By: Jim Haddadin
FRAMINGHAM — After a night of spirited debate, Town Meeting members passed on the opportunity to buy Millwood Farms Golf Course, clearing the way for a Southborough developer to acquire the land to build condos.
Residents filled the floor of Nevins Hall Thursday for a Special Town Meeting to determine whether the town would exercise its option to buy the 66-acre golf course for $5.5 million.
While many sought to preserve the course as open land, others said buying it would be ill-advised considering other capital needs. Those capital projects include millions of dollars worth of repairs to the Memorial Building, a renovation of Loring Arena and a school building project that could cost as much as $30 million.
Bill McCarthy, a Town Meeting member from Precinct 10, said residents will likely be asked to approve debt exclusions for upcoming investments, inflating tax bills for years to come.
“We’ve got a lot of problems with the capital projects coming up,” McCarthy said.
Capital Group pledged the site will be developed as an age-restricted condominium development, and not converted to another use, such as a residential subdivision. The business also pledged approximately 30 acres will be reserved for active or passive recreational use by the public.Others said they were swayed by new assurances from the developer, Capital Group Properties, that it will leave much of the golf course unspoiled and allow the public to access to a large swath of land across from Callahan State Park.
During deliberations over the past several weeks, the Finance and Capital Budget committees and Standing Committee on Ways and Means voted to oppose the purchase.
"I know this is open space,” said Jeanne Bullock, chairwoman of the Capital Budget Committee, which opposed buying the course, “but if we can get 30 acres for nothing of open space right across from Callahan State Park ... we thought that was a good idea.”
An article authorizing the town to buy the golf course required support from two-thirds of those present to pass. An unofficial tally showed supporters fell far short of the mark, with 69 voting to buy the course and 86 opposed.
Adding to the suspense of the evening, the handheld devices used to record Town Meeting votes malfunctioned, requiring town officials to record votes by a rollcall.
The longtime owner of the course, the Drake family, struck a deal in May to sell the course to Capital Group, triggering a 120-day window for the town to exercise its right of first refusal to buy the land. Under state law, the town was granted the right to match any bona fide offer to buy the course and convert it to another use because it previously received tax breaks for recreational land.
Under a plan developed by the town manager, Framingham would have temporarily financed the purchase with short-term bonds, giving it at least four years to study operations at the golf course and devise a plan for the properties.
The town also planned to study other municipal needs, such as a future cemetery expansion, and whether it would be prudent to sell off portions of the property, which could be used for limited residential development.
Capital Group launched a fervent campaign to lobby Town Meeting members against buying the course, hiring a public relations firm to help craft its pitch to residents ahead of Thursday’s vote. The company held an information session Monday at Bella Costa restaurant and circulated a letter from its lawyer spelling out the firm’s commitments to the town.
Despite the firm’s assurances, officials cautioned Thursday that the town cannot guarantee the pledges are legally binding without a contract. On balance, Town Counsel Christopher Petrini said, it appears the town can seek relief in court if Capital Group fails to keep its word, though Petrini shied away from calling the offer “ironclad” or “bulletproof.”
In a statement issued after Thursday’s vote, Bob Depietri, of Capital Group Properties, said the developers appreciate the “thoughtful discussion” over the future of the property.
“We look forward to working with the Town of Framingham on the future development of this property in a way that makes fiscal sense for the town and opens additional public green space for everyone in Framingham to enjoy,” Depietri said.