Map sale

Should the land be used for two affordable homes or sold to reduce tax increases?

An old view of 161 Topsfield Road. The building on the left has since been demolished.

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IPSWICH – The city has a parcel of nearly 29 acres in size in its hands. It’s not ideal for development, but it could possibly handle two houses.

These could be kept as affordable housing and most of the land could be kept as open space. This is how article 15 on the mandate of the municipal assembly envisages it.

But at last week’s warrant hearing, members of the finance committee questioned why the land couldn’t be sold instead.

Almost directly across from Warner Road, the land in question was levied for taxes in 2016. Planning director Ethan Parsons said a preliminary survey showed the property could accommodate a septic service to handle six to eight bedrooms.

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The land is 28.8 acres, but the buildable area, which is closest to Topsfield Road, is “about five acres”, he noted.

The rear portion would be turned over to the conservation commission. This part of the property is wetland and borders Kamon Conservation Land on Pine Swamp Road. Parsons added, however, “We don’t know if the terrain will be suitable for hiking trails and public access at this point.”

Although the land has a city-assessed value of $579,400, FinCom members said the land is likely worth more.

“It looks like we have a lot of needs in our community,” said FinCom member Rob White. “We will be applying for a waiver every year for the next five years.”

He added: “It doesn’t make sense to have protected land that you can’t access, and we could offset affordable housing with premium housing.”

let’s go

Parsons said a family with a history of development in the city let the land go instead of paying taxes. Presumably, that meant they saw no development potential there, he added.

The terrain is steep and the city was told the ground for the septic systems was not good, Parsons said. He acknowledged that the alternative is for the select committee to authorize the treasurer to auction off the land on the private market.

“Rob is right. A lot of money comes out. It would be really nice if some came along,” FinCom member Janice Clements-Skelton said. She suggested the land be paid for by the Affordable Housing Trust.

Parsons said if the city wanted affordable housing there, the land should be donated to a nonprofit developer such as Harborlight or Habitat for Humanity for a nominal amount.

They should also receive “hundreds of thousands of dollars potentially to build affordable housing,” he added.

FinCom member Michael Schaaf noted that 1,000 households in Ipswich are struggling to afford their accommodation. This is defined as people who pay more than 30% of their income in rent or mortgage.

“I tend to agree with Janice and Rob on this one,” chairman Michael Dougherty said. He said the property had the potential to fetch more than its appraised value.

Acknowledging the need for affordable housing was “critical”, he added: “There are other opportunities that will come our way”.

“I think this is the one we let go in the market and reap the benefits financially,” he added.

Affordability

Clements-Skelton said affordability also depends on tax rates. If the city loses revenue, it must pay for services through higher taxes, she argued. “All these families who are on the edge of affordability fall below the line,” she said.

“For every investment we make, we have to find a revenue stream to offset that investment or we’re just going to continue to create more of the situation that we don’t want: having people who can’t stay in town because of the affordability,” says Clements-Skelton.

Parsons said affordable housing would involve “significant subsidies” from the city. A “rough” estimate was around $50,000, he said, but added, “There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Schaaf disagreed and estimated around $200,000 for a homeownership unit.

Parsons said the grant could depend on the level of assistance offered to buyers and the type of developer doing the work.

FinCom member Chris Doucette said money from a sale would go into the city’s “free cash” account. “I don’t see how it reduces taxes,” he said.

Clements-Skelton said the money could go to capital or a stabilization fund, which would reduce the impact on taxes.

Dougherty said the land could bring big money to the city. “We need to discuss some ways to bring in money,” he said.

Slap in the face

Speaking from the audience, Rich Kallman warned that the whole land could be less valuable to a developer than the buildable area alone.

Schaaf proposes to support the article on the mandate. Dougherty said the land could fetch $500,000 on the open market.

Rob White and Clements-Skelton agreed with White, saying the land was probably worth more.

However, Schaaf said house prices, not taxes, are what drive people out of Ipswich. “If you’re serious about affordable housing, you’ll support it,” he said.

When Clements-Skelton said they shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, Schaaf said he would support the sale if the money went to the affordable housing fund.

Parsons said the 2020 housing production plan highlighted the housing deficit in Ipswich, and the extent of the problem was “a slap in the face”.

He said that to be affordable, the houses would sell for around $150,000. This would require large subsidies, he noted.

The GIS map shows 161 Topsfield Road in yellow. The green area is the wetland area and the hatched blue area is the wetland buffer area.

Dispatch

Schaaf said if the city wanted to save money, it could have cut $500,000 from the police budget by moving its dispatch center to Middleton. This proposal proved unpopular when presented to the select committee in 2021.

Clements-Skelton suggested getting a fair market value for the land before deciding on an approach.

Parsons said there was no rush to dispose of the land, but he warned that the engineering and legal work could cost between $25,000 and $30,000.

The motion to recommend that voters at the town hall support the article failed 2-6. The committee then said they would recommend the item be deferred to the fall town meeting, when a market value is known.

“I think the information is insufficient,” Schaaf said. He said further soil analysis is needed to see what could be built there. “I have traveled the earth. It’s not an easy package.