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BOSTON GLOBE - State Hospital Auction Raises New Concerns

November 28, 2004

''It's like a car: If you don't use it, it rots away," he said recently, during a break from his regular 4-mile walk around the hospital grounds.

Bearce said he expects more decay, and delay, as the state tries to sell 93 acres of the long-defunct 156-acre property to be redeveloped as a housing, commercial, and recreational site. The rest of the property will go to the town for various uses.

''Any time government gets involved," he said with a chuckle, and left unspoken his lack of confidence in it.

Foxborough town officials and other residents also say they have grown skeptical of the state's efforts to sell the parcel. Two years ago, Foxborough Town Meeting changed the property's zoning to accommodate a redevelopment proposal that had been negotiated with state and local officials and town residents. Since then, a deal with the development team fell through, primarily because of concerns over undisclosed financial information. In a decision that has unnerved some town and state officials, the state Division of Capital Asset Management now plans to auction off the property on March 9.

''They bid mostly on their ability to pay and I know that [the state] says they're going to be prequalified, but I'm just more doubtful. We have no control now" over who is selected as the developer, said Kevin Weinfeld, chairman of the town's Planning Board.

Kevin Flanigan, one of the state division's deputy directors, said Foxborough officials will have as much control as they do over plans for privately owned property.

''We see this as turning the control of the redevelopment process over to Foxborough," he said. ''Once this transfers, the developer is going to have to work with the local authorities, just like any local developer would have to."

Sherry Clancy, project manager for National Development in Newton, which bought Lakeville's state hospital in an auction two years ago, said the process can be positive if the winning developer and town officials communicate regularly.

''It's really about going to individual towns and understanding the town's needs," she said. ''You can't go to an auction, get a piece of property, and just because you bought it, go gangbusters on it."

While Lakeville officials have been satisfied with National Development, nothing guarantees that other towns will be as fortunate, said state Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat whose district used to include Lakeville. Pacheco is skeptical of the auction process.

''The development firm could have put a 40B out there and there wasn't anything the local community could have done," he said, referring to the state's affordable-housing, or antisnob, statute.

In this case, however, the state has stipulated that the buyer develop the property according to the town's reuse plan, a condition that could shrink the number of interested developers.

Jerome J. Manning, chief executive officer of JJManning.com Auctioneers, which is handling the Foxborough property, said typically, auctioned parcels simply go to the highest bidder. But state officials have taken extra precautions for the Foxborough parcel, requiring bidders to show they have not only the financial ability to handle a $50 million to $70 million project, but also an experienced team of qualified architects and contractors.

''All those limitations certainly don't allow you to maximize the use of prime land in the middle of Foxborough," Manning said. ''But it certainly makes the property more desirable to the town fathers when it's done."

State Representative Michael J. Coppola, a Foxborough Republican, said while he is pleased the reuse plan will be followed, he is worried taxpayers will not get the maximum amount for the property, which initially drew an offer of about $3.9 million.

Under the original arrangement, the developer could not purchase the property until the town had completed the approval process for the project's design, Coppola said.

In the auction process, the property will be sold without any town or state permits in place, which could also drive down the price, he said.

''I wouldn't be surprised if this land was [sold for] under $1 million," Coppola said. ''As a taxpayer, I don't like it."

Flanigan said the state will have a ''reserve price" on the property and will not sell below it. He declined to reveal the price.

Weinfeld said he remains skeptical. ''I'll let you know once I know who the bidders are," he said.

As for Bearce, he said he is anxious to look at more than just empty buildings.

''It'll happen eventually," he said. ''The Red Sox won the World Series. The Patriots won two Super Bowls. . . . Anything can happen."

 

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com