State grant refused in 5-3 vote on Monday
By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writer
SOUTHBRIDGE — Fewer than 60 days after voting to pursue it, the Town Council voted tonight to reject a large grant to fund a proposed riverside park.
After about one hour of discussion and debate, the Town Council voted 5-3 against the acceptance of a $234,972 Massachusetts Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities (PARC) grant. Councilors Kristen Auclair, Esteban Carrasco Jr., and Rick Nash voted to accept the grant while Councilors Denise Clemence, Marc DiPietro, Monique Manna, Jorge Morales, and Gus Steeves dissented.
Proponents of the riverside park proposal suggested it was premature to reject the funds without environmental studies being done, while the majority cited concerns over potential contamination and fiscal constraints. The PARC grant included a stipulation that would have required the Town expend $100,000, bringing the entire project to more than $330,000. Those funds had been previously budgeted and allocated in the Town’s current fiscal year budget.
“I still believe that presently its fiscally irresponsible to put this money in this direction right now,” DiPietro explained. “We can’t repair the roads to get to the park. In the near future, it’s not looking any better.”
Auclair responded by noting that the $100,000 the Town would have spent on the proposed park would repair just one-quarter of a mile of roadway.
“Infrastructure is a huge problem in Southbridge. $100,000 is literally a drop in the bucket,” she offered. “I hope that as councilors we’re looking toward the future and long-term success for Southbridge rather than patchwork fixes that we’re accustomed to.”
Clemence, the Council Chairwoman, argued the long view was on her mind in opposing the grant acceptance.
“I am looking at the future,” she asserted. “It’s all about the fiscal responsibility. Do we want another town park? Absolutely. Why not? But we have a lot of town parks.”
Clemence continued: “This particular project is not, in my opinion, is not in the best interest of our community.”
Without specifying who the project did benefit, Clemence charged: “I believe this is in the interest of one, but not in the interest of all.”
Previous public assertions, and comments later in Monday’s meeting, implied Clemence believed the benefactor of the proposal would be Charles “Chip” Norton, Jr., owner of Franklin Realty Advisors. Norton, through Franklin Realty Advisors, currently owns the parcel in question.
“There’s better money spent on the green grass on the side of a river and somebody else’s decrepit fence coming down,” declared Clemence.
Carrasco disagreed, labeling the chairwoman’s assertion “an incorrect statement.”
“This project is the interest of many,” he argued. “We had a room full of individuals that came out on a weekday meeting to speak their mind and to talk about this issue.”
Carrasco later added: “This is not the interest of one, this is the interest of many through many years, many, many years.”
Country Club Place resident Robert Clemence, the husband of Council Chairwoman Denise Clemence, spoke against the grant proposal as well, noting that for the same amount money involved, he had purchased his “home on 10 acres of land” in 1990, whereas, he argued, the proposed riverside park would feature “less than half an acre of usable land.”
“We have more property on the Common than this property would have for the Town,” Mr. Clemence said, referring to it as “not a great value.”
He also argued environmental studies would be unrepresentative of 19th century contaminations from railroad accidents on or around the parcel that, he asserted, have not been documented or reported in the media.
“There are no records of what happened or what may have been contaminated along that roadway or that railway,” he insisted.
For Steeves, the concern was primarily environmental, and he made a motion to postpone the vote until a 21E environmental study had been completed. There was no second to the vice chairman’s motion.
“It seems to me to be really premature to be accepting funds for a project before we know if it even makes sense to do the project,” Steeves argued.
Town Manager Ron San Angelo explained the PARC grant was supposed to have been decided upon by Jan. 31, but the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, who would execute the grant, had allowed additional time for a vote to be taken.
“I don’t think we should risk the grant. We’ve talked about this numerous times. What we’re talking about tonight is accepting the grant, period,” San Angelo said. “That State understands this process, they’ve okayed this process.”
Councilors reaffirmed the Town Manager’s comments, suggesting an acceptance of the grant would not preclude the Town from rejecting the proposal based upon findings from studies and research.
“I will not support this project if there is contamination on that land,” insisted Carrasco.
“We still have time to vet it,” Auclair said. “Tonight if you vote no you’re killing the project.”
North Street resident Demetri Kasperson agreed, urging the Town Council to support a project he billed as “a no-brainer” as a result of “a mandate” as expressed in the Town’s Master Plan.
“This particular part of the river was ideal for a park,” Kasperson said. “Start following expert advice and stop second-guessing the experts.”
He added: “If you say no to [the grant], you’re saying no to free money for the community.”
Proponents also argued a rejection of the proposed PARC grant would likely hinder the Town’s chances in receiving future grants, particularly from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Auclair suggested chances of seeking a future PARC grant would be “absolutely zero” while Economic Development Director Rosemary Scrivens said pursuing the grant itself was paramount to “a commitment on the community’s part.” Scrivens said she had a “concern” as to the likelihood of receiving future grants after rejecting one “for the reasons that people are bringing up now without finding out if the land is contaminated.”
The arguments in support of the PARC grant offer were ultimately defeated by the 5-3 vote not to accept the funds.
The “no” vote comes after a great number of debates on the proposal, including a Dec. 20 Town Council meeting to pursue the grant. On that evening, the Town Council voted 5-1-2 to apply for the PARC grant. Councilors Auclair, Carrasco Jr., Wally MacKenzie, Nash, and Steeves voted in favor. Council Chairwoman Clemence voted no. Councilors DiPietro and Manna abstained. Councilor Morales was not present for the Dec. 20 vote. Since then, MacKenzie has resigned, reducing the Town Council to eight members.
On Monday night, San Angelo noted the proposal remained the same but now with the offer of funds in hand.
“Nothing has changed since that vote except that we’ve got the grant,” the Town Manager said.
Nash agreed, noting that the “substantial” grant acceptance was sent to the Town Council by its General Government subcommittee with a 3-1 favorable recommendation.
“I think this needs to get done now,” the freshman Councilor said. “There’s no need to drag this out.”
Plans called for the park to be constructed on an East Main Street portion of the former American Optical campus by the rotary. The property is owned by Franklin Realty Advisors Inc., which has been a cooperative partner in the process, the town manager said. Norton and Franklin Realty Advisors has pledged to sell the 1.3 acres of riverside property to the town for $1, plus an offer to pay for an updated 21E environmental study of the site as well as maintenance of the parcel. Franklin Realty Advisors is the town’s single largest taxpayer, according to the Town Manager.
Southbridge was one of 22 communities across the commonwealth to be awarded such grants that were announced Jan. 5 by the office of Gov. Charlie Baker. According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the grant would have funded the construction of a lighted, paved walking trail loop with benches, a footbridge for river viewing, and fencing.