Autumn in the North Cemetery.

Sixty miles west of Boston, Massachusetts there is the small New England town of Sturbridge. Located at the junction of I-90 (The Mass Pike), and I-84 it has become known as the "Crossroads of New England". The town was first settled over 300 years ago, and like other small New England towns it has grown just enough over the years to be in a difficult place today. How do we embrace the future without forgetting how we got to our present? How do we attract the right kind of growth, and maintain who we are? And, what about our culture out here in Central Massachusetts?

These pages will cause one to think about how to protect what we have, our future direction, and how to move on in the very best way.

Those thoughts, and other ramblings, will hopefully inspire more thought, conversation, action, and occasionally a smile...

...seems to be working so far

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"The Truth Behind Article 48" by Carol Childress

The following letter was submitted, for posting, by Sturbridge resident, Carol Childress.  At the end of her letter, Carol has also supplied documentation, a definite "Paper Trail",  that she feels supports her position.--ed.

Dear Fellow Sturbridge Residents and Taxpayers, 
I'm writing to all of you because there is an important issue that has once again stirred me to speak out, and with urgency, I am asking that taxpayers please attend the December 5th Special Town Meeting to vote NO on Warrant Article 48. 
The truth behind Article 48 is that it asks voters to allow the town to convert one of its current conservation parcels, the Shepard parcel, into $2,500,000 athletic fields. On its face, you will find that Article 48 does not mention any costs involved in the conversion or the athletic fields, or why the conversion is even necessary; rather, its ambiguous content asks voters to allow the town to go to the legislature and make a "deed correction" to a 6-year old deed, which if approved, will insert active recreation as an “intended use” for the property when it was purchased in 2004 with Community Preservation Act funds. 
Voters who attended the 2004 Town Meeting when this parcel was purchased can attest to the fact that athletic fields were never mentioned as an intended use; two original members of the Community Preservation Committee have attested that athletic fields was not an intended use; and in fact, Article 48 completely disrespects and disregards that 138/5 supermajority vote rendered in favor of purchasing the property for conservation purposes in 2004. 
To make matters worse, voters were asked for and appropriated funds in 2009 to pay for design services for these fields; however, there is no language in that 2009 warrant article informing voters that the Shepard parcel had actually been purchased 5 years earlier for conservation purposes and that recreation fields are not a permitted use on the property. My research has shown that little (if any) due diligence was exercised on both the Shepard and Town Barn parcels prior to asking voters for design money in 2009. And yet, there isn’t a prudent developer out there today who purchases land, much less spends money on design, without first knowing where the rare species are located and whether it will impact their development (according to the Conservation Commission, the Shepard parcel is 2/3rds covered with Priority and Estimated Habitat for Rare Species.) Just this issue alone should cause town officials to pause and think about the potential waste of that 2009 appropriation if the fields must be redesigned; there’s also the possibility that the project will not be permitted at all. 
I and many others, including legal professionals, have reviewed the 2004 Selectmen’s Executive Session Meeting Minutes; Community Preservation Committee (CPC) Meeting Minutes and Agenda discussion; the 2004 Finance Committee Warrant Article in comparison to the Selectmen’s Substitute Motion and the vote taken in 2004; the Shepard deed; and the 2004 Report of the CPC in the 2005 Town Meeting Warrant. The only place active recreation is mentioned is in the 2004 Selectmen’s Executive Session Meeting Minutes when “uses” for the property are discussed, and it is stated, “not recreation fields.” Those minutes served to inform the reasoning behind the language inserted into the Selectmen’s 2004 Substitute Motion, and all other official town documents clearly point to passive uses for the property, such as hiking, non-motorized biking, fishing, and hunting.  
Residents should also be aware of one of the most eye-opening issues discovered earlier this year, which is that the town used vague Warrant Articles when it purchased all the so-called "conservation" parcels with taxpayer dollars through the 3% Community Preservation Act (CPA) surcharge on our tax bills. Therefore, this conversion of the Shepard parcel represents one of four parcels that can potentially be converted to other uses, or they may now include uses that are not what voters may expect based on presentations at Town Meetings. As one who attended and voted at all the Town Meetings when these parcels were purchased, I took those Warrant Articles at face value; I trusted and believed our town officials that these properties would be used for conservation purposes; however, in reality, some properties seem to be protected and some definitely are not. I say some "seem to be protected" because three of them, including the Shepard parcel, are under the so-called “protection” of the Conservation Commission; yet they made the sole decision to “release” the Shepard parcel for athletic fields - without voter input or agreement. Such a decision is completely contrary to voter's rights under the Article 97 Amendment to the Constitution of the Commonwealth, and it is also completely contrary to the Conservation Commission Act under MA General Laws Chapter 40, Section 8C, which allows passive uses only. 
I have also discovered that the town is in violation of the Community Preservation Act statute, as all the properties purchased using the 3% surcharge and matching state CPA funds are required by law to have permanent Conservation Restrictions (CR) on them - but none of them do - in fact, the town has skipped that entire part of the process; so technically, these property transactions are not complete. Not until I raised this issue in April 2011 did town officials make any real attempt to complete these transactions; however, they are seeking to include active recreation in at least one of the CRs, thus indicating that future conversions on other parcels could be imminent. 
The last cost estimates I heard at a Selectmen’s meeting to build these athletic fields currently tips at $6,000,000. The fields are extravagant, regulation-sized, tournament-type fields at two locations: the Shepard conservation parcel, which is estimated to cost $2,500,000; and the new Town Barn fields are estimated to cost $3,500,000. There have been no public forums or hearings so residents can learn more and become informed instead of being asked on-the-spot at 2012 Town Meeting to pay for these fields. 
Not the least bit disturbing is that the town actually has a golden opportunity to complete the Conservation Restriction on the Shepard parcel right now. This is an opportunity that the Conservation Commission has chosen to ignore; but in fact, it is not solely their decision because they are not the “owners” of the parcel – the town and its residents are the owners, and voters should have an opportunity to weigh in on this opportunity. The Department of Fish & Game informed me on November 3rd that it's "highly likely" they would hold a Conservation Restriction on the Shepard Parcel, plus they would work with their Office of Fishing and Boating Access to build a kayak launch ramp and parking lot – with all construction and engineering costs to be paid by the state. These uses are in keeping with the property’s current legal uses and zoning in that district, while strongly complementing current eco-tourism efforts underway by the Trails Master Plan Committee. 
Over the last five years, the town of Sturbridge has accumulated $50,000,000 in long-term debt that has increased our property taxes by 28%. Water and sewer rates have risen sharply; and it was decided on November 14th that the town will borrow another $1,800,000 to cover damages associated with the October snowstorm. The economy is not improving as everyone would hope and many Sturbridge taxpayers are already struggling to make ends meet.
We are the ones who will foot the bill for these $6,000,000 fields (this estimate doesn’t include the two additional maintenance and recreation personnel per the Master Plan, or other costs associated with building these fields), and we have every right to expect a public forum and other information prior to being asked on-the-spot at the 2012 Town Meeting to pay for these. 
I urge you all, please come to town meeting on December 5th and let your voice be heard: vote NO on Article 48. Let's send the following message: we will not allow the town to disrespect and negate the taxpayer’s supermajority votes of 2004; we will not allow the town to set a precedent by converting one or more of our conservation parcels; and we will not allow the additional spending of millions of taxpayer dollars without prior public input at public forums and hearings. 
Carol Childress 

Note:  the following are links to supporting documentation.--ed.


  1. As a concerned taxpayer in Sturbridge I'm voting no on article 48. I don't believe this is the proper use for these parcels of land that were purchased for conservation. Nor do I want my taxes to increase because of it.

    I hope other residents will join me in not supporting article 48 at the special town meeting December 5th.

    How/Why were "recreation" CPA funds used for a study of the Shepard parcel?

  3. My thoughts are here, I'll be voting no.

  4. Not only will I be voting no on Article 48, but I'd like to suggest it's time to repeal our participation in the CPA program. I feel that the program has served its purpose here in Sturbridge. Back in the early years the state was matching our collections 100%. We have acquired enormous amounts of open space and done restoration on the town hall and center school with those funds. Now the state match is just 25% and the economic climate has changed considerably. Hooray for us that we took maximum advantage of the program early on, but it is time to reassess our participation.

  5. I've researched this a bit and plan to write another article very soon about it, the reason being, I feel the Community Preservation Act in our town has been abused. Article 48 is the perfect example of that abuse; using vague warrant articles to coax voters into buying conservation land, then attempting to convert them to other uses is inexcusable; and neglecting to put the required CRs on the properties is a violation of the law. Click on IGR 2009; go to Page 16, Section 10. Surcharge Revocation. According to the Department of Revenue's Information Guideline Release (as amended), all outstanding obligations, including future debt service payments and deficits...must be identified and a determination made whether there are sufficient monies available within the fund to meet those obligations.

    If so, the assessment of the surcharge will cease and funds needed to pay remaining obligations must be set aside; and no new obligations should be undertaken.

    If not, the surcharge will continue to be assessed until sufficient funds become available to pay the remaining obligations. It says very clearly, "the community should not undertake new obligations that cannot be funded by community preservation revenues unless it is prepared to use other municipal funding sources.

    Now, look at Pages 69 & 70 of the upcoming town meeting warrant; after the 12/5 meeting, the balance owed will be $1.2 million. Can we eliminate the CPA? Can we reduce to 2% or 1%?

    That's a question for for the Finance Director.


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