When the Rail Transit District was rezoned back in the year 2000, Ashland was in a dramatically different place in its evolution. Unfortunately, as Ashland changed, the zoning for this 180 acre parcel didn't. Recent developments have included the 398-unit Cirrus Apartment development and the Planning Board is poised to issue a permit for a 6MW solar panel on the cap in the near future. It's only a matter of time before the rest of the property is developed according to the zoning put in place almost twenty years ago. The current zoning allows for almost 600 more units of housing to be built, very little open space, and practically no commercial development.
Concurrently, over the last few years, we have identified a number of needs in Ashland. An expanded commercial tax base, recreational amenities and open space, and housing that is affordable for our seniors are just a few. To put it simply, the current plans and zoning for the Rail Transit District do not address those needs. However, the only real way to gain control over property is to acquire it. Given this simple fact, I have proposed to the Board of Selectmen and they have decided to exercise their authority to take the property through eminent domain for the purposes of economic development, recreational, and senior affordable housing purposes. Specifically it breaks down as follows:
Economic Development - The economic development potential cannot be understated. With 400 apartments across the street, the train station nearby, and access off of Rt.135, there are multiple acres that can be used to help grow our commercial tax base.
Senior Housing - This will also give us the opportunity to provide senior housing that is truly affordable for seniors that have spent their lives making Ashland the successful town it is today, but find themselves struggling to stay in their homes due to rising property values and taxes. As opposed to a allowed sprawling expensive townhome development that covers 36 acres, we would be looking at a much smaller footprint that will keep a significant buffer between the development and the surrounding neighborhood.
Recreation - the acquisition of the property will give us an opportunity to make a strong attempt at bringing in a recreational facility (think YMCA or the Boys & Girls Club) into Ashland. Across the street from the Middle School, and the aforementioned senior housing, it would be difficult to find a better location for such a facility.
A solar project through a philantrhopic entity such as Citizens Solar, combined with walking trails and a section of the Upper Charles Trail through the restored wetland areas and open space serve as perfect closure to the site's Nyanza past. And with a potential new school on the horizon, the property will give us another option when we decide to take the next step of building one.
Please note that we do not take eminent domain lightly. We have recognized the potential of this site over the last year, and have been trying to work with the owner to acquire the property through more traditional means, with deals being signed but then backed out of. Frustrated with the property owner's unwillingness to honor agreements and commitments, plus his inability to get things accomplished, has led us to take this bold step of taking the property through eminent domain.
How does one finance such an acquistion? A purchase price is still being determined, but as stated above the property owner has already agreed to a number of purchase proposals of varying degrees, only to not honor them. But there are a number of tools that we can utilize. First, a PILOT agreement with Citizens Solar will allow us to put $1.5 million towards the acquistion. Second, Senate President Spilka has secured funds through the Economic Development Bond Bill for the purchase. Finally, if we dispose of the property we can use any of the proceeds to pay for the acquistion. I am confident that we can do this without an override.
The Rail Transit District is the largest piece of developable property remaining in Ashland and is probably the most critical acquisition we can make in the future. It may seem audacious, but we owe it to ourseves to get this right. I expect this plan to generate significant discussion in town. The process of taking the property will begin at the Fall Town Meeting on November 28th, where it will require a Town Meeting vote. More information will be forthcoming as it becomes available.