Published in the December 7, 2017 edition
By MAUREEN DOHERTY
NORTH READING — Pop a cork, it’s time to celebrate.
The bubbly was flowing Monday night at the first official meeting of the Selectmen following the closing on December 1 of what may prove to be the most significant land sale in the town’s history.
While they toasted with the non-alcoholic variety, the celebratory atmosphere in Room 14 at Town Hall was genuine as Selectmen Chairman Mike Prisco invited everyone at the local and state level who had a hand in bringing the $30 million cash sale of roughly 32 acres of land to Pulte Homes of New England to fruition to the party.
While Prisco was spreading the credit around the room, his colleagues were in agreement that it was his persistence in pursuing a disposition of the long-dormant half of the former J.T. Berry state hospital campus at 104 Lowell Road over the past two to three years that got the deal across the finish line.
When the dust settles, Pulte Homes will build 450 units of age-restricted 55+ market-rate condominiums on the site in nine buildings plus a clubhouse and its own wastewater treatment facility. The complex will use the same main entrance currently used by the 400 Edgewood rental units owned by Lincoln Properties on the other half of the former state hospital land.
Over $20M to the town
From the sale, after expenses, Prisco explained, the town will net $20,116,000 while the state walks away with $8,997,000.
And, once built out in about four to six years, the town will net $3M annually in tax revenue (in today’s dollars) which Prisco said will help stabilize potential future residential tax increases and have a positive effect on the town’s commercial base by creating about 1,000 new residential customers who will make purchases at the town’s retail stores, restaurants and services while have a minimal impact on school enrollment.
“The project is also consistent with the board’s strategic plan objective to create more housing options for seniors,” Prisco added.
Among the most important financial benefits to the town, Prisco pointed out, is the cash offer provided by Pulte “can be used to invest in future growth and infrastructure for the town.” He explained that since the $20.116M came from the sale of land these proceeds can only be used toward the town’s capital projects or needs, or to pay down existing debt.
First SPM success story
Another milestone regarding the sale was the fact that it marks the first-ever closing under the state’s new Sale Partnership Model (SPM) collaboration for the disposition of dormant or surplus state properties. Such partnerships were not always the norm and friction often resulted when the state’s goals and the community’s goals for how best to use the state land were in conflict. Forming a partnership between the state and the community where surplus state properties are located to work to the advantage of both parties is the goal of the SPM.
Carol Gladstone, the commissioner of the state Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) issued a congratulatory letter to the town on Monday praising the success of the SPM, which Prisco happily read into the record.
“This is a significant achievement for you, the Town and the Commonwealth as we collaborate on the first closing of a Sale Partnership land sale. In addition to the revenue generated by this sale, the Pulte Homes development plan will be of great benefit to seniors in the town and region. We would like to especially acknowledge the partnership formed with your Town Administrator, Michael Gilleberto and Town Planner Danielle McKnight, who worked so diligently on the town’s behalf.”
Gladstone added, “North Reading has set the standard of performance on the Sale Partnership Model. Congrats!”
Prisco explained that the town was able to maximize its return on the sale of the property under the SPM, which provided the town with a 5 percent incentive to close on the deal within an expedited timeline. They met that timeline by one day, which netted the town an additional $1.5M, he said.
Prisco added had it not been for the partnership and guidance provided by the firm of T.R. Associates headed by Fran DeCoste, “I don’t know if we would be here.”
Similarly, Prisco said attorney Jonathan Eichman of the town counsel firm of Kopelman and Page was also a valuable partner and thanked him on behalf of the board. “Without him we would not have gotten this deal done. Day and night, taking away from his family time with constant phone calls from Mike (Gilleberto) or myself.”
The efforts of state Sen. Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Brad Jones, as well as DCAMM, Jay Ash, the Secretary of Housing/Economic Development, voters at Town Meeting, past and present selectmen, the Community Planning Commission and Town Planner Danielle McKnight, the local ConCom and Board of Health, the administrative assistance provided by various town departments, and numerous state agencies, such as DEP, MEPA and DOT, all played a hand in the deal, Prisco said.
Prisco also singled out Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto.
“Last but not least, our Town Administrator. Wow, this guy’s a champion,” Prisco said, adding a special thanks for the sacrifices the T.A.’s wife has made due to the time Gilleberto has spent away from his family due to the constant demands of the job.
“Make sure you take some time before your next child comes. Mike and his wife are due to have a baby in April, so he needs to take some time to take care of his family, but he got this done, so he can go ahead and do that now!” Prisco said.
Gilleberto was equally complimentary of Prisco.
“It was your drive that got us here. I can remember receiving an email from you when I was still working for the town of Tyngsboro telling me about the Sale Partnership Model, when I was preparing to start here in August of 2014, and what you guys were planning to do,” he said.
The T.A. recalled a meeting they had with Rep. Jones and Sen. Tarr during his first week on the job, which was when he realized that “it was clear we had a tremendous opportunity back then in August of 2014. And I don’t think any of us really knew what that opportunity could be and how many different goals it could help us to achieve, but here we are, and you drove it every day through the years.”
Gilleberto added that considering the “dozens of conference calls, morning, noon and night, I think it needs to be recognized how much time and effort you put into this.”
Rep. Brad Jones quipped, “I would say Mike was a pest, but this is a great success. This is a product of many hands, many meetings, many texts. Mike and Mike, neither of whom are shy about contacting my office as well, and I am glad that I could play some small part in facilitating a meeting, facilitating a phone call, and I am pleased DEP moved faster than historically they might have on something like this. That was because we had done a lot of work over the years and we kept some good records.”
Jones added, “This is a great success story for the town. It creates a great responsibility and opportunity for the town because things like this don’t come along in all communities ever and come along very few times in other communities. So this is one of those rare opportunities. It is going to be up to the boards to make an informed, enlightened and hopefully long-lasting decision or decisions with these proceeds. As it becomes more known, I am sure we will be getting a number of questions about how (we) came up with that yield and how it become structured.”
“This is a great win for the town and hopefully it will be the foundation for other successes down the road,” Jones added.
Selectman Steve O’Leary added a bit of historical perspective, going back to 1990 or 1991 when the state first announced its intention to shutter the former J.T. Berry state hospital and transition most of its remaining residents into group home settings, whenever possible, as the state moved away from large campus settings to house people with a wide range of special needs.
Jones said his involvement with the Berry dates back to when the state agreed to parcel off the playing fields to the town at what is now Rita Mullin Field.
“We asked for a seat at the table with the state as to the disposition of the J.T. Berry Center and I think they gave us a chair at the table but not much say,” O’Leary said, but through years of “persistence” of former board members, as well as the willingness of Rep. Jones, Sen. Tarr and former Sen. Robert Buell to work with the town change eventually came about at the state level.
“But the thing that really changed in the last three to five years was the state’s recognition that there was an awful lot of property out there and they weren’t doing much with it and maybe it would be a good idea to partner with the communities in the Sale Partnership Model. It was set up under the Patrick Administration, but it really came to fruition under the Baker Administration and this is a prime example as to what can be done,” O’Leary said.
“It’s a testament to the persistence on the part of this board and prior board members too, and our representation at the state level – they’ve been unwavering as far as trying to get us assistance here in North Reading that will be of benefit to the community,” O’Leary said, adding, “And it’s your persistence, Mr. Chairman, shepherding this through and not giving up until it paid off.”