By MAUREEN DOHERTY
LYNNFIELD — What will be the next chapter in the venerable history of Centre Farm?
Should it be returned to private ownership with preservation restrictions attached in a possible real estate flip shortly after the town closes on the sale? Or should the town hang tight for a year or two while alternate uses are developed with an appropriate business plan presented to the voters for approval?
About 20 residents turned out for a two-hour forum at the middle school auditorium last Wednesday in response to an invitation from town officials for viable alternative uses for possible inclusion on the warrant of the Oct. 20 Town Meeting.
This was in stark contrast to the over 560 voters who packed the same space at June’s Special Town Meeting in an overwhelming vote to purchase the seven acres at 567 Main St. and all its buildings for $1.55 million.
However, about the only majority consensus drawn from those in attendance was a rhetorical “What’s the rush?”
It was pointed out that in June the voters were told the town could afford a two-year window to hold onto the property, which would give townspeople adequate time to develop alternative uses for Centre Farm.
If nothing viable passed muster with the voters, the fallback plan would be to sell the property after preservation restrictions were recorded on the deed to ensure it would not be subdivided while also preserving the Colonial look of the farmhouse and the character of the town’s center.
Elizabeth Visco, 3 Cortland Lane, asked whether “the urgency to push forward for a sale was due to pressure from a buyer?” She said it appears that at this stage the warrant article proposal should be to delay a sale rather than to be voting on specific use for the site.
Town Administrator Bill Gustus explained that what had changed since June was that he was told by the original broker that private buyers remained interested in purchasing the property even if the town put those restrictions in place. The closing between town and the Donovan family is Sept. 30.
This put the town and the selectmen in a catch-22 position of being presented with an opportunity to get the town out from under the expense of maintaining a large parcel of property. But the board had to act quickly to present this as an option to the voters due to the requirement that Town Meeting authorizes the selectmen to sell any town-owned real estate.
In August, the selectmen authorized Gustus to draft a Request for Proposal (RFP) from potential buyers. This 27-page document was just completed on Monday and it is available at the Town Administrator’s office. It sets out all of the preservation restrictions that would be maintained in perpetuity as well as minimum bid price of $1.5M.
The RFPs must be submitted by Friday, Oct. 17, which will enable the selectmen to bring any viable offers to the floor of Town Meeting, Gustus said.
Selectmen Chairman Dave Nelson said the best financial interests of the town need to be considered. “I do feel strongly that the town should not be involved in the real estate business, but we did this for the right reason,” Nelson said of the initial purchase by the town to prevent the property from being subdivided with two additional house lots.
Kendall Inglese of 23 Huckleberry Hill East had several ideas to use the property as a unique showpiece for the arts, the preservation of local history and rental space, similar to the multifaceted approach taken in Wakefield with the 1636 Hartshorne House, where she sits on the Board of Directors. An organization such as the Lynnfield Cultural Council could assist in obtaining grants and the like, she said.
“People will take this seriously” if they are given adequate time to develop a business plan, but it simply cannot be done properly in a week in a half, Inglese said.
The warrant for October Town Meeting will be closed on Monday, Sept. 29 at the selectmen’s meeting. Any warrant article submitted requires a minimum of 10 signatures of registered voters certified by the Town Clerk by that afternoon.
Other suggestions for potential uses included making it a small working farm with an an apple orchard but no animals, turning it into a B&B, or allowing the library to expand in the space and free up the current library space for administrative offices for the police and fire.
Karen Duggan of Parsons Avenue suggested a “docent couple” could live upstairs and give tours of the downstairs areas, thus preserving features like the 19th century French hand-painted mural wallpaper in the dining room, and renting out space in the barn/carriage house for events like art shows and weddings.
Deborah Dunphy, 3 Wirthmore Ln., said while some interesting suggestions had been made the townspeople “do need a way to get the other proposals pulled together in an organized fashion” within a longer specified timeframe set by the town to separate “pie in the sky” ideas from viable ones.
Ted Caswell, chairman of the Capital Facilities Advisory Committee (CFAC), said, “The best way to maintain that property in its current position is to sell it to a single user, hands down. Otherwise, we start to modify it.”
Caswell said the CFAC has embarked on its evaluation of the current and future space needs throughout the town but has not yet been able to even discuss Centre Farm. He surmised that would require its own subcommittee to “cast a very wide net” in developing a business proposal for a future Town Meeting to consider. Selling the property now to a private owner with the restrictions in place would allow the town to meet its goal of preserving it without a financial risk, Caswell said.
Gustus explained that a two-thirds vote would be required by town meeting to authorize the selectmen to pursue a sale, therefore if the townspeople believe the proposal is premature or not in the town’s best interests, they can vote against it or simply vote to pass over it.
Nan Hockenbury, president of Lynnfield Historical Commission, was unhappy with being excluded from discussions between Gustus and town counsel in developing the historic preservation restrictions after requesting to be included in August.
“There are some provisions that we would not agree with,” Hockenbury said, adding, “The town government is remiss in excluding the Historic Commission from this discussion for a property that we helped you acquire. We need to think twice about our cooperation in the town government and I’d like to know why we are always left out of these things.”
Gustus explained that the legal review of the material was just completed the day before the forum in a draft form and as he understood it from counsel the preservation restrictions were standard and would be reviewed by the Mass. Historic Commission.
“If you have specific concerns about the language we will do any reasonable accommodation,” Gustus said, adding “tweaks” could be made “right up to the time of the sale.”
Hockenbury said at a minimum the mural wallpaper should be required to be preserved and replacement windows should not be used as other viable options are available.
Gustus felt it would be unrealistic to place restrictions on what private owners could do with the interior of their home. He added that if the townspeople feel the protection of these and other features should be required it does open up a new “philosophical argument” over whether the town would prefer to pay the $1.5M to hold onto the property and maintain it rather than return it to private ownership.