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Choices narrow for future of Bromfield House; committee to vote March 24

Practically speaking, neither Bromfield House nor the land where it sits has as many possible uses as town boards and residents believed. That’s the emerging consensus of the Bromfield House Committee, which is charged with considering the property’s future. Committee members hope to vote on a final recommendation at their March 24 meeting and present that recommendation to the Select Board on March 30.

The Bromfield House Committee set several criteria for evaluating plans for the property: financial impact on the town; functional benefit to residents; appropriateness for the location; and “durability and timelessness.” In recent meetings, the committee has eliminated some plans that seem to lack public support or appear to be money losers.

After the committee looked over many ideas for the property, the two strongest contenders remained ones that had emerged early in discussion: selling the house and land as a unit for a private residence; or keeping the land for town use, after removing or demolishing the house.

Views on future uses differ

At its Feb. 24 meeting, the committee reviewed the results of an online survey in which residents expressed their preferences for Bromfield House’s future. The survey was admittedly not statistically valid because respondents were self-selected. But it clearly showed the public did not support either returning the property to the Nipmuc Nation or using the land as a public dog park. So the committee quickly eliminated those ideas from consideration.

As for other possibilities, the survey showed little consensus. About 55% of respondents favored selling the property as a private home, while 45% preferred converting the house to apartments for the elderly. In another question that offered a different set of choices, about 34% strongly supported keeping the land for town use, but disposing of the house either by demolishing it or allowing it to be relocated. A nearly equal number—29%—strongly opposed that idea.

Chair Rich Maiore said the committee needed some more solid facts and figures to settle on its recommendation for the Select Board. So he assigned each member the “homework” of gathering data on specific questions for the next meeting—checking on real estate values, finding information on sports fields, asking about demolition costs, and more.

Keeping Bromfield House where it is

By its March 10 meeting, committee members Pat Jennings and Pam Marston had conferred with local real estate agents. If the town were to leave Bromfield House in its current location and sell the land and house together for a private home, the various agents estimated the property might bring anywhere from $400,000 to $800,000. Under the terms of Margaret Bromfield Blanchard’s will, the money from the sale would go to the owner of the property, the Bromfield Trust, for its scholarship program, not to the town or the schools. But, as committee member Steven Ford pointed out, the new owner would likely pay somewhere between $10,000 and $14,000 in property taxes into town coffers each year thereafter, and selling the property would cost the town nothing.

As for the possibility of using the house as apartments for the elderly, board members expressed doubt the project would interest a developer. Jennings asked how the town could prevent a developer from substantially changing the building’s appearance, and Bill Ference said a developer might need to put a large addition on the house to make the project financially worthwhile. A consensus emerged that apartments were not a likely use for the building. But Maiore asked for a little more research to be done before the next meeting.

Removing the house, keeping the land

The committee has heard that at least two people are interested in moving the house to a new location. And the Select Board has already shown an interest in that outcome. Committee member SusanMary Redinger said she had heard moving the house about 1.5 miles would cost its new owner between $75,000 and $100,000.

Once the house was gone, however, the town would be responsible for filling in the cellar hole, removing any buried tanks, and cleaning up contamination. Maiore said Jeff Hayes, the town facilities manager, estimates that process would cost the town about $50,000.

If no buyer came through to move the house and the town decided to demolish it, that would cost the town about $100,000, Maiore said—perhaps more because of hazardous materials such as lead paint and asbestos.

As for what might be salvaged from the house before demolition, committee member Ford said he had walked through Bromfield House with a specialist in antique homes who said there was not much of value, because the salvage market has fallen. The value of the house, the specialist said, is in its location, history, and original features. He recommended listing it on a national website for historical properties.

The two main uses that have been proposed for the land after removal of the house have been as a public park or an athletic field. For a park, Redinger said, the town should expect to spend $80,000 or more for grading, putting in grass, and adding some trees and benches.

A number of people have urged putting a softball field on the land. But Ference presented drawings that showed a softball field would barely fit. In one orientation, home plate would be right next to Mass. Ave. In the other orientation, an outfield fence would run along the road, with home runs possibly sailing into the street.

Ference said he had talked with Bob O’Shea, chair of Parks and Recreation, who said the town was more in need of a rectangular field than a softball field. But resident Jim Lee, who was present at the March 10 meeting as a member of the public and who has worked on other town sports fields, told the committee, “You need 300 feet in length for a rectangular field, and you don’t have it there.”

Moreover, as several committee members noted, the land slopes steeply and would require grading and possibly even a retaining wall to make it level enough for a sports field. An additional complication is the presence of wetlands toward the back of the property. Maiore said he would ask the Conservation Commission and Liz Allard, town conservation agent, for more information on that issue.

School Committee weighs in

In the time between the Bromfield House Committee’s two meetings, the School Committee considered the disposition of the property. The school district offices will remain in Bromfield House until next fall, and Hildreth Elementary School abuts the property.

On March 8, Redinger reported on the Bromfield House project to the School Committee, which she chairs. She said the Select Board would like to keep the land but not the house. She told the committee there would be no financial gain for the schools from the sale of the house, given that the money goes to the Bromfield Trust. The School Committee took no formal vote. But, based on the information they had at the time, members agreed they would support allowing the house to be removed and the town to retain the land.

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