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Housing Trust Keeps Boynton Meadows Loss Docs Under Wraps

‘Since It Was Sold As A Public-Private Partnership, All Information Should Be Available To The Public’
Ed Note: This is the first part of a two-part story reporting on a meeting held by the Community Preservation Committee and the Affordable Housing Trust on October 28 to discuss and evaluate the loss of more than $400,000 of town funds on the Boynton Meadows development. This first part of this two-part story explains the Affordable Housing Trust’s refusal to release certain information related to the project agreement and CPC’s response to that assertion. Next week’s story will report CPC members conclusions and response to the project’s financial loss and comments on the CPC’s future funding of affordable housing in town.
Part I
by Russell Harris
     Long after the town’s $400,000 investment in the Boynton Meadows Housing project was declared a total loss, and long after the Town Manager said the town had exhausted legal avenues for recapturing the lost money, a reasonable person would think that the Community Preservation Committee could get forthright answers to questions about how the loss occurred. But - in this case – such a reasonable person would be wrong.
     For a few years, the Community Preservation Committee has half- heartedly considered conducting a post-mortem evaluation of the $400,000 loss. But after much prodding, they finally began the process by inviting the Affordable Housing Trust to come before the CPC seeking to understand the details of how the loss occurred.
     It has been almost eight years since Town Meeting approved the CPC’s recommendation to provide funds to invest in the Boynton Meadows project, so it would seem that a transparent, open discussion could have taken place. However, when the Affordable Housing Trust appeared before the CPC, the CPC’s request for detailed information was largely rebuffed.
     Fran Stanley, Housing Coordinator for the town and a lawyer by training, represented the Affordable Housing Trust and spoke for its members in prepared remarks. Ms Stanley opened her remarks, saying, “Some information has been shared about the investment, but some of it remains confidential.” She explained the legal basis for keeping the information confidential by saying it was, “within the permissible exceptions to the open meeting law, specifically the exceptions
that exist for litigation and the value of real estate.”
     She continued that the Select Board had been briefed a number of times and that when certain private details are resolved, more information would be made available to the public. She said that a barrier to releasing
the information is that the project is not yet complete and that a commercial unit in the development has not yet sold.
     After Ms. Stanley’s initial remarks, CPC member Bruce Easom asked a series of questions. He first asked whether a copy of the signed agreement between the Affordable Housing Trust and the developer could be shared with the committee. Stanley replied that some information had been provided but said, “It is not a public document at this point.”
     Mr. Easom pressed her, asking why the documents could not be released. Ms Stanley replied that Town Counsel had not given the Affordable Housing Trust permission to disclose certain information.
     Mr. Easom asked whether the Affordable Housing Trust would consider releasing a redacted copy of information that others found sensitive so that the CPC could “understand the full nature of the agreement between your organization and the developer.” Ms Stanley replied that that the Housing Trust would take any such request ‘under advisement’ but could not predict their response.
     Bruce Easom replied that it would be useful to understand “what's in that agreement even if some parts needed to be redacted in order to make it public.” He added, “My sense of this agreement that I got from town meeting was that there wouldn’t be any sort of information not released to the public.” He added that since Boynton Meadows had been sold as a public-private partnership, all information should be available to the public.
     He added, “Now, you tell me that there's an agreement that I can't see, and I'd like to figure out if there is a way to make that happen, at least maybe in some kind of a redacted form.”
     Mr. Easom then asked Ms. Stanley to explain the Affordable Housing Trust’s efforts “to recover some or all of the town's four hundred thousand dollars.” Ms Stanley replied that she could not because a lot of those discussions took place in executive session.
     Continuing his questioning, Bruce Easom said that he had reviewed the video files of Town Meeting’s approval of the transfer of $400,000 to the Affordable Housing Trust and that Groton resident Terri Ragot had asked if an independent auditor would be used to monitor the financial agreement with the town. Easom said that a representative of Mount Laurel LLC, the project developer, asserted that an outside auditor would be appointed and that periodic audited statements would be provided.
     However, no provision for an outside auditor was ever made. Ms Stanley said that regular informal financial reports were provided to the Affordable Housing Trust by Mount Laurel LLC, project developer. Mr. Easom requested release of those financial reports and Ms Stanley said she would look into whether they could be released.
     Next, Bruce Easom asked how many affordable units would have been required under the zoning bylaws in effect at that time. Fran Stanley replied that three affordable units would have been required of any developer building the project, whether or not town money was invested. However, she said she doubted that the affordable units would have been built without town participation.
     Commenting on the Town Meeting video, Mr. Easom said project proponents suggested that there was an “opportunity to achieve a 137 percent return on our investment over approximately a three-year period.” Responding to that claim, a voter observed that any commercial bank would be interested in such an outsize investment return, suggesting that he couldn’t see why the town would need to put $400,000 of its money into such a project when commercial banks would jump at such an opportunity.
     Mr. Easom observed that if a commercial bank had made the investment instead of the town, “We still could have created three affordable housing units at no cost to the town.”
     Mr. Easom then asked how the Affordable Housing Trust felt they had been treated by the developer. The members did not respond directly but referred the CPC to a letter to Bob France dated April 6, 2017, saying that it summarized the Trust’s feelings ‘pretty well.’ That letter is reprinted in the LETTERS section of this edition of the Groton Herald.
     Mr. Easom said he was not opposed to recommending an investor role in a similar project, but that without understanding exactly where the Boynton Meadows project went wrong, he could not recommended a similar investor project to Town Meeting. He said he would need answers to questions about auditing and having agreements in place that better protect the town.
     Members of the Community Preservation Committe: Chairman Daniel Emerson, Anna Eliot, Bruce Easom, Richard Hewitt, Robert Degroot, and Timothy Svarczkopf.
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