WILMINGTON, MA — In a stunning reversal, the Board of Selectmen decided not to call a Special Town Meeting to acquire Sciarappa Farm on Monday night.
After last week’s 3-1-1 vote, Selectman Ed Loud changed his mind, resulting in a 2-2-1 vote. Selectmen Michael McCoy and Kevin Caira voted in favor. Selectmen Mike Champoux and Ed Loud voted in opposition. Selectman Greg Bendel abstained from the vote. Lacking a majority, McCoy’s motion failed.
Why Did Selectman Loud Change His Vote?
Selectman Ed Loud remains supportive of the town’s efforts to purchase Sciarappa Farm, but does not want to see town officials resort to taking the land through eminent domain, which is an option – and perhaps the most likely option – under the article crafted by Selectman Mike McCoy.
The article read: “To see if the town will vote to raise and appropriate, transfer from available funds, or borrow pursuant to any applicable statue, a sum of money for the Board of Selectmen to acquire by purchase, gift or eminent domain the following real estate commonly known as Sciarappa Farm.”
“Last week, when I voted for this Special Town Meeting, I was all for buying the property at Sciarappa Farm. In my excitement, I voted for it,” said Loud. “I’m going to change my vote tonight because we have the word ’eminent domain’ as part of the vote… I wouldn’t want my land taken… I’m not voting in favor if that word is in the article.”
“I don’t think we’re stealing any property for anybody,” responded McCoy, who argued the town would pay much more than the currently assessed value of $700,000. “We’ll hire an unbiased third-party appraiser… and pay market value based on 62.5 acres zoned R60… That’s 30-40 house lots. That’s what we’re going to pay.”
McCoy noted an eminent domain taking in this instance would meet “the public good” required outlined in the law.
“There’s a huge umbrella of what we can do with the land,” said McCoy, pointing to multiple municipal uses, including relocating town services to create more cemetery space, or developing something similar to the Ipswich River Park in North Reading.
“We’ve taken property by eminent domain before,” noted McCoy. “In the history of community, we’ve taken three properties… 154 acres for the Town Forest in 1974, 73 acre on Salem Street [in the 1970s], and Wildwood Street property in 1998…. We’re not the boogeyman that’s going to steal your property… We’re not going to start going into neighborhoods or businesses and steal their properties.”
“People are going to try to put a spin on this. We’re not stealing this,” McCoy emphasized.
“I don’t think we’re going to be successful sitting down with the families [negotiating a sale],” McCoy later added. “Without the eminent domain option, we have no teeth in the article at all.”
“I would potentially be in favor [of purchasing Sciarappa Farm] as a resident if (1) the price was right and (2) the purpose was sound. Those would be very important to me,” said Selectman Mike Champoux. “I hope every resident factors those appropriately. [This article] is a manipulation of the parliamentary process at this point in the game.”
Why Didn’t Selectman Bendel Vote?
Selectman Greg Bendel revealed later in the meeting that Town Counsel advised him not to participate in discussions due to a potential conflict. In a strange coincidence, Bendel is currently making some home improvements and one of the three contractors that provided him quotes is Michael Welch, the father of the proponent of the article to rezone Sciarappa Farm in order to purchase it and build a 250-condo development.
Did McCoy Have A Back-Up Plan?
Selectman Mike McCoy spearheaded a citizen-driven petition article to amend the town’s zoning bylaws. Specifically, the article is seeking to remove multi-family uses from within both the Neighborhood Mixed Use District and Central Business District. It is also amending the use zoning table that addresses those particular uses.
The Town Clerk certified the signatures on the petition. As a result, the Selectmen had no choice but to call a Special Town Meeting.
“I don’t feel comfortable speaking about it here…. The discussion will take place at the Finance Committee/Planning Board Public Hearing,” said McCoy. “This is just a vote before the board.”
“I have a lot to say on this, but will reserve my comments for that joint hearing,” concurred Champoux.
“We should respect the will of the residents who signed the petition and move forward with the Special Town Meeting,” added Bendel.
Selectmen voted to call the Special Town Meeting. McCoy abstained as the petitioner.
The Special Town Meeting will take place during the regular Annual Town Meeting on Saturday, May 5 at 10:30am. The Town Moderator will suspend the Annual Town Meeting after Article 2 and move into the Special Town Meeting.
Hull noted Special Town Meetings were held inside Annual Town Meetings before in Wilmington, back in the 1980’s and possibly early 1990’s. Town Counsel confirmed the plans were lawful.
Effectively, if the McCoy-petitioned article is approved during the Special Town Meeting, even if the Welch rezoning article of Sciarappa Farm is approved later on during the regular Annual Town Meeting, Welch’s proposed condo development would no longer be permitted under the amended zoning bylaws.
The bylaw change would have much farther reaching ramifications beyond Sciarappa Farm, which will be discussed at the Joint Hearing between the Planning Board and Finance Committee.
Will McCoy Get Another Bite At The Apple?
Selectmen voted 4-0-1 to open the warrant for the Special Town Meeting on Monday night and to close it at the end of business on Friday, April 6. The Selectmen will then sign the warrant at its regular meeting on Monday, April 9. The required Joint Hearing between the Planning Board and Finance Committee will take place on Wednesday, April 25. The necessary legal notifications will take place in the Town Crier on April 11 and April 18.
“We are under a very tight timeline to get various notice requirements met by and before the May 5 meeting,” cautioned Town Manager Jeff Hull.
While McCoy did not discuss his intentions at the Selectmen’s Meeting, he — or allies — could conceivably spend the next few days collecting signatures for an article to petition the Selectmen to acquire Sciarappa Farm.
Hull & McCoy Have A Difference Of Opinion
“I think someone in the Town Hall dropped the ball on this,” McCoy said, a claim he repeated at previous meetings. “If I was notified in 2014, I would have jumped to buy that property… I don’t think the Sciarappa family did anything wrong… I think they’re a wonderful family. I know some of them… They did what they had to do.”
“I’m going to continue to defend the Town Assessors Office, the Planning & Conservation Office, and my office… and whoever else you want to throw under the bus,” responded Hull. “There was NO correspondence that I’m aware of in or after 2014 that the Sciarappa Family had an offer to purchase, which is the requirement you cite. We NEVER received correspondence to that effect. There was such correspondence that came to the board back in 2007-2008. It was entertained, but the family withdrew it.”
“It’s too bad this outstanding family has been caught in the crossfire,” continued Hull. “They’ve lived in town for 100 years or more. They’re being criticized for doing what anyone else would do — to sell their land — that’s just the way the country operates. You’re entitled to sell your land to whomever you want to sell it to, whether it’s 20 square feet or 62 acres of property. It’s unfortunate they’re being sullied.”
“They did nothing wrong,” responded McCoy. “This did everything right.”
“It’s clear from the letter to the editor [from one of the family’s attorneys], there’s a measure of concern over the tenor of the conversation surrounding this property,” noted Hull. “I need to reach out to both attorneys again to see if there’s an interest in having a discussion.”
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