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Wrentham: Town vows to fight quick sale of land development center exempt, Jacques says

Boston Globe August 7, 2003
by Lisa Kocian, Globe Staff

Only a month after a new law made it easier for the state to sell surplus property without the approval of the Legislature, a senator who represents Wrentham has vowed to fight any effort to apply the law to the proposed sale of 25 to 50 acres at Wrentham Developmental Center.

State Senator Cheryl A. Jacques, a Needham Democrat, contended in a letter to the Department of Mental Retardation that the 450-acre property is “indisputably exempt” from the new fast-track law passed on June 30, in part because the facility was created by a special act of the Legislature in 1906.

In addition, she said, the property is also subject to Article 97 of the Amendments to the state constitution, which requires a two-thirds roll-call vote of both the House and Senate before certain property, such as farm land or open space, can be sold.

“The land at issue is undeveloped open space, the past use of which has been limited to conservation or agricultural purposes,” she stated July 22 in the letter to Gerald J. Morrissey Jr., commissioner of the Department of Mental Retardation. “The Wrentham Board of Selectmen has significant concerns regarding such a transfer, and as the Senator for Wrentham, I will ensure that the town’s interests are protected.”

Jacques has not received a response. Richard Powers, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Department of Mental Retardation, said the letter “is under review and we will respond to it shortly.”

But Donna Rheaume, a spokeswoman from the same office, said Health and Human Services will “work closely with the Legislature and local officials on any land reuse.” The Wrentham Developmental Center is still in use and housed more than 320 patients as of mid-June.

The state approved the fast-track law on June 30 as a way to generate desperately needed cash by selling surplus land. The law allows the Division of Capital Asset Management to bypass the Legislature. It also eliminates “polling,” which gave state agencies, as well as cities and towns in which the affected properties are located, the opportunity to buy the land before it is offered to a private developer.

The new law is only in effect until June 30, 2005, because it contains a sunset provision.

Michael Carroll, chairman of the Wrentham Planning Board, said he’s troubled by the end of polling, “because that really puts us on notice” that a big property could change hands. But he said he was not particularly concerned about the Wrentham Developmental Center, because he believes it is exempt from the new law for the reasons outlined by Jacques.

Town officials have drafted a law intended, Carroll said, to inform Governor Romney that “we’re not going to stand in your way [in the sale of the Wrentham Developmental Center parcel], but we want to be part of the process.”

Another state property in the region, the vacant former Medfield State Hospital, also is expected to be put up for sale. But state Senator Jo Ann Sprague, a Republican from Walpole who represents Medfield, doesn’t seem as worried as her Wrentham counterpart.

The 225-acre property is expected to be put up for sale as soon as the regional Medfield State Hospital Reuse Committee and the Division of Capital Asset Management agree on plans for a residential development to be built on the site.

In a July 30 meeting, the regional committee clashed with the state over the amount of housing proposed. The committee is pushing for about 329 residential units, but state officials said 379 to 399 units are needed to make the project profitable enough to attract developers.

The regional group has no official authority to determine the future of the site, but state officials have said for months that Medfield, Dover, Sherborn, and Millis would have a significant voice in the planning process. Most of the land is in Medfield, but other towns have an interest because they have a smaller parcel or border the property.

When a committee member asked at the July meeting if the hospital land would be subject to the new fast-track legislation, David B. Perini, commissioner of Capital Asset Management, responded that the sale would proceed almost as if the old legislation were still in place. Afterward, Kevin Flanigan, a spokesman for the department, said the only difference would be that the property wouldn’t be offered first to the communities.

Sprague said she is confident the collaboration between the towns and the state will continue unimpeded by the new law.

“I really would stake my reputation on the fact that it won’t make a difference in the way [the asset management agency] and the Medfield Reuse Committee are working together now,” she said. “I have no fear that this will change what we are trying to do in Medfield.”

©2003 Globe Newspaper Company

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