SOUTH WEYMOUTH — About a half-mile from the entrance to the mixed-use development taking root at the shuttered South Weymouth Naval Air Station is a white clapboard building with an inviting entryway framed by four columns and a pair of large planters.
A prominent sign outside the handsome building at 223 Shea Memorial Drive says: “Town Hall.”
But this is no ordinary town hall.
This is where residents of SouthField, the development that eventually will include 2,855 homes, pay their property taxes and water and sewer bills. It’s where they get their dog licenses. But SouthField Town Hall provides little else in direct municipal service, leaving its 475 residents (and counting) with some unusual arrangements — and complaints.
SouthField is a “unique situation,” said Peter Mahoney, a development associate with John M. Corcoran and Co., the Braintree company that built The Commons at SouthField Highlands, the first apartment complex at SouthField. “They’re Weymouth residents at the end of the day, but they have a second layer of government between them.”
SouthField residents vote in Weymouth, and SouthField children attend Weymouth Public Schools. But SouthField homeowners pay property taxes to the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., a tiny agency that functions like a mini-municipal government.
Tri-Town, in turn, reimburses Weymouth for schooling its children and pays Weymouth police $53 per hour to patrol SouthField’s 1,400 acres and $421.75 for emergency calls; and $1,642.53 to the Weymouth Fire Department each time it responds to a call from SouthField.
The arrangements have led to some unhappiness all around.
Tri-Town has wrangled with Weymouth school officials over the cost of educating its children. Tri-Town suggested paying the town $6,900 for every SouthField student enrolled in the Weymouth public schools. But Weymouth wants $11,500 per pupil. The negotiation is ongoing.
Meanwhile, Tri-Town also has to contend with Abington and Rockland, since the sprawling former base straddles those towns as well.
Rockland Town Accountant Eric A. Hart says Tri-Town owes his town $651,056 because it failed to disperse its excess revenues properly, as required by legislation. The legislation and reuse plan states that Tri-Town’s excess tax revenues should be distributed annually and that Abington should get 12 percent, Rockland 42 percent, and Weymouth 46 percent. Tri-Town disputes Rockland’s assertions, and says it has no excess revenues to give away.
Kevin R. Donovan, chief executive officer for Tri-Town, said State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office is reviewing the SouthField project and he’s waiting for its assessment on how Tri-Town’s finances are being handled.
“It’s premature to make any grand declarations,” said Donovan. “Let’s see what the state auditor’s report says.”
Christopher Thompson, a spokesman for Bump, said the auditor is looking at Tri-Town’s “management of finances and if the agency has the proper internal control of its resources.”
Thompson declined to say when the audit would be complete.
“It’s still ongoing,” he said.
The hottest controversy in the development involves what comes out of the tap: SouthField residents drink the same water as Weymouth residents, but they’re billed differently and charged higher rates.
Tri-Town is still trying to figure out a permanent source of water for SouthField, which at full-build-out would have more residents than many small Massachusetts towns and could require as much as 1.4 million gallons of potable water per day, and 522,000 gallons to irrigate its future athletic fields and the proposed 18-hole golf course known as SouthField Links & Academy.
For now, Weymouth has agreed to supply water and sewer services during the first phase of the project, which could include up to 1,000 homes and 300,000 square feet of commercial space, according to Donovan. Tri-Town buys the water at a premium. It then tacks on an additional $8.79 service fee per unit of water — 748 gallons — before selling it to SouthField residents.
SouthField residents end up paying between $21.34 and $29.87 per unit for water and sewer service — far more than what Weymouth residents pay. The annual water/sewer bill for a household using 90,000 gallons in Weymouth is $1,530, but an apartment at The Commons at SouthField Highlands using the same amount is charged more than $3,500.
Jessica Landerholm, a resident at The Commons at SouthField Highlands, a 226-unit complex, says she was not prepared for her water and sewer bills to be so high.
In April when she moved in, her first bill was $15.17. Then it went up to $50 per month. After Tri-Town raised the rate in the summer, it shot up to $150 per month.
“We were blindsided,” said Landerholm. “If we had known, we probably would not have moved in.”
Donovan says the higher charges to SouthField’s pioneer residents are unavoidable.
“The rates should improve as the project gets built out,” he said. “Right now . . . these costs have to be absorbed by a very small population.”
Landerholm said she doesn’t think SouthField residents should pay more than what Weymouth residents pay for the same service.
“They consider us to be our own little island,” she said. “We are Weymouth residents. Our mailing address says Weymouth.”
Christine Young, another SouthField resident, says she also has grown alarmed by the higher bills. Young said when she and her husband moved in, their water/sewer bill for the last two weeks in May was $35. Then it went to $58 in June; $141 in July; and by August it was $146.
Young recently circulated a petition stating her concerns about the “exorbitant rates for what should be a basic, affordable utility” at SouthField. She collected signatures from approximately 90 SouthField residents and sent copies to Tri-Town’s board of directors and Weymouth town officials. She sent them copies of her bills as well.
She faults Corcoran, Tri-Town, and LNR Property Corp., the master developer of the SouthField project, for failing to notify the residents about the situation, which she finds to be “very frustrating.”
“I think it was poor planning on everyone’s part,” said Young. “We’re taking on the brunt of it.”
Mahoney, the development associate for Corcoran, said he hopes Tri-Town can make adjustments to its budget to take some of the burden off SouthField residents.
“The water issue is a big issue out there,” said Mahoney. “I don’t think anybody really anticipated this.
“We’re hoping to be able to work with Tri-Town and residents to find a solution that’s good for everyone,” he said.
Young said she attended a Tri-Town board of directors meeting at SouthField Town Hall in October and saw a PowerPoint presentation that broke down the costs and explained why SouthField’s water and sewer bills were so high.
“They listed Tri-Town’s expenses, salaries. . . They pass that on to us. That has nothing to with the cost of water,” said Young. “That’s not fair.”
She said she believes SouthField residents should get more say in Tri-Town matters.
“We want to be heard,” she said. “We are feeling like we’re outcasts.”
There are five members on Tri-Town’s board of directors who are appointed by their respective towns to five-year terms. Two are from Rockland, two from Weymouth, and one from Abington.
“Why isn’t there a representative from the [SouthField] community on the board?” said Young. “We have one from all the towns, but what about someone actually living here?”
Donovan said there are no plans to add a sixth member. If a SouthField resident were to be appointed, that would need to be authorized by Weymouth’s mayor and the selectmen in Abington and Rockland, since they make the appointments.
There are also no plans to incorporate SouthField as its own municipality. The property that was originally part of Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth until it was acquired by the Navy at the beginning of World War II will most likely revert back to the towns after the redevelopment is complete. Tri-Town will continue to exist until all of its bonds are paid.
Once that happens, Tri-Town will present a dissolution plan to Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth; with their approval, the land will revert to the original boundary lines. “At this point it is too early to predict when this would happen,” said Donovan.
For now, Tri-Town will continue to oversee SouthField’s transformation to a community made up of neighborhoods with names like SouthField Highlands, SouthField Crossing, The Estates, SouthField Village, and SouthField Square.
So far, 226 apartments and 39 homes and townhouses have been completed at SouthField Highlands. The project will continue in phases, and construction is slated to be finished in about 10 years. Eventually people will move into homes in other parts of the old base, and Tri-Town would be responsible for providing water, sewer, schools, and emergency services to those households, as well.