The town's options for developing the sprawling Weston Nurseries site changed dramatically yesterday after a land conservation group, a key player in the process, announced it was dropping out.
The Trust for Public Land, which was working with a developer to come up with a plan aimed at preserving more open space on the property, wrote in a letter released yesterday that it had withdrawn.
"This was a difficult and disappointing decision, made ultimately because the middle-ground alternative the Selectmen asked us to work on last March has garnered insufficient support in the town," wrote Badge Blackett, a senior project manager for the trust.
The decision is a major shake-up that eliminates one of the town's three options for development on the 705-acre site. It also gives a significant boost to developer Boulder Capital, which had been competing against the trust for the town's support.
Finley Perry, chairman of the Land Use Study Committee, said the withdrawal of the trust leaves the town with two options: buy the entire site for more than $28 million or allow Boulder's plan to go forward.
Voters will make their decision at a special Town Meeting and a special election set for next month.
The Mezitt family, owners of Weston Nurseries, signed a deal to sell to Boulder Capital as part of a bankruptcy agreement. Because the property is zoned agricultural, the town has the right to buy it if it can match the sale price.
It also had the option of assigning its rights to a third party, the Trust for Public Land. The trust is a land conservation nonprofit that selectmen invited into the process to come up with a plan that preserved more open space than Boulder's but at a cost to taxpayers.
The trust was working with developer Taurus New England, which declined comment yesterday about the group's withdrawal.
Although the town has one fewer option now, Perry said the involvement of the trust forced Boulder to make changes in terms of open space, landscape design and unit count to make its plan more attractive.
"While I'm disappointed TPL is gone from the standpoint of not having that option in front of us anymore, I'm really grateful for what they brought to us," he said.
Boulder Capital President Roy MacDowell agreed the competition from the trust made Boulder's plan better. The company has proposed 940 housing units - a mix of single-family, condos and apartments - 500 acres of open space and 450,000 square feet of commercial space.
"Our plan, for sure, is a better conservation plan because of TPL and Badge Blackett," he said.
The Taurus plan offered fewer housing units, 605, and about 30 acres more of open space than Boulder, but it would have required taxpayers to chip in $6.7 million.
NStar was offering $1.5 million toward that amount for 50 acres near its Wilson Street facility. The trust was also hoping to secure $2 million in taxpayer-funded Community Preservation Act money. But the committee that oversees that money did not support funding.
After that vote, Blackett wrote in his letter, the plan faced "a very serious gap."
"Taurus New England has been an excellent and engaged partner in these discussions, but TPL has concluded that there is no viable way to either change the character of the proposal or its funding structure and still present townspeople with the clear alternative to Boulder that the Selectmen requested of us," he wrote.
(David McLaughlin can be reached at 508-626-4338 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)