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Medfield: Towns consider alliance selectman discuss state hospital site
Author: Lisa Kocian, Globe Staff Section: Globe West

Medfield and Sherborn selectmen, seeking strength in numbers, are considering making an end run around the state agency in charge of redeveloping the former Medfield State Hospital by appealing to the Legislature for help winning key concessions.

Medfield’s main concern is that the state Division of Capital Asset Management, which wants to sell the property to a private developer as soon as possible, is proposing about 400 housing units for the site, significantly more than the town says it can handle.

Sherborn wants its water back. Selectmen from Sherborn are seeking support from their Medfield counterparts for legislation that would force the state to return water rights for Farm Pond to Sherborn. The pond is in Sherborn but was taken by the state without compensation more than a century ago for use as a water source for the hospital, according to selectmen.

Officials from the towns hatched the tentative plan to join forces at last week’s Medfield Board of Selectmen meeting. “We can fight the fight alone but we’d rather fight it together,” said Paul DeRensis, a Sherborn selectman.

Medfield selectmen were initially cool to the proposed legislation, arguing that free water rights for Sherborn would only drive up the amount of money the state has to squeeze from the property, which they said would no doubt mean more housing units.

“Put our shoes on for a second,” said Medfield Selectman Paul Rhuda. “The state keeps telling us it’s a cost factor.”

He was referring to the position repeatedly expressed by the Division of Capital Asset Management: In order to preserve some of the 40 historical buildings on the 225-acre site and still have a project that developers will bid on, the number of units allowed has to be high enough to make the project financially feasible.

But by the end of last week’s meeting, Medfield selectmen had warmed to the idea of working together and committed to coming up with their own additions to the legislation including, perhaps, a cap on the number of housing units. “I think a cap is what you need,” said Warren Wheelwright, chairman of the Sherborn Board of Selectmen. “Let’s go over their heads.”

But by going around the state agency and appealing directly to the Legislature, the town might be opening itself up to the unknown.

The agency wants Medfield to rezone the hospital property for residential use before the project is put out to bid. But selectmen are reluctant to do that because they think it might be their most important form of leverage in limiting the amount of housing.

According to Medfield Selectman Osler “Pete” Peterson, the state has already suggested that by not rezoning the land the town could leave itself vulnerable to a Chapter 40B project, which would allow a developer to build significantly more housing units so long as some of them are affordable. Selectmen are worried the state could decide to just auction off the property with no restrictions on the amount of housing.

Kevin Flanigan, a spokesman for the Division of Capital Asset Management, would not comment on the legislation discussed by the two town boards except to say the state expects to be compensated for existing water rights because “they’re extremely valuable state assets.”

Although a Chapter 40B project would be possible if the property were auctioned, Flanigan said, the agency is not considering an auction of the former hospital property. “Theoretically, the auction option is something that is available to us by statute,” Flanigan said. “[DCAM] Commissioner [David] Perini has time and time again emphasized that it’s not our intent to use that approach.”

It’s not clear how the proposed legislation would change the tenor of the negotiations.

Sherborn selectmen, in addition to reclaiming water rights to Farm Pond, are also asking for rights to the water pipeline that runs from the pond and is now used for local fire protection.

If such legislation were to pass, Sherborn has no immediate plans to tap into the pond for municipal water use, DeRensis said, but the town wants to protect the pond in order to protect the aquifer it is connected to. As Sherborn has no municipal water supply, the town gets water from the aquifer.

Though it’s unclear exactly what will end up being a part of the bill, Sherborn selectmen suggested bringing together state legislators not just from the two towns but from neighboring Millis and Dover as well.

“There’s strength in numbers,” said DeRensis. “We’re saying we should all stand together.”

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or [email protected].

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