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Candidate’s development effort for towns could aid her family

By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / October 5, 2010

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SHREWSBURY — State Representative Karyn Polito has proudly celebrated her role in getting the state to pay for a road linking her hometown of Shrewsbury to a commuter rail station in neighboring Grafton.

“This is a huge win for taxpayers in two towns,’’ she said at a 2004 groundbreaking for CenTech Boulevard, calling it a “terrific enhancement to our area.’’

It is an area Polito knows well. She and her family own more than 60 acres near the roadway and, according to specialists in commercial real estate, could benefit from development of the formerly desolate stretch of town.

“Access is critical,’’ said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate development association, explaining that the construction of such a road would generally increase the marketability of nearby property. “If you’re going to have a tenant with employees — if you’re able to provide access for driving or by mass transit — you clearly have a site that would be more attractive.’’

The involvement of Polito, now the Republican candidate for treasurer, has become the subject of an anonymous complaint to the State Ethics Commission, which, since 1987, has warned public officials not to act on matters affecting property near their own, because the official is assumed to have a financial interest in the outcome. The commission has not taken any public action in the case.

“There is a presumption there is a financial benefit, and in fact it makes sense,’’ said Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “If you’re getting new services to your property, you’re going to get a benefit from that.’’

Polito, a lawyer who has cast herself as a leader “fighting the culture of self-interest and inside deals on Beacon Hill,’’ declined several requests for interviews. In e-mailed statements, a campaign aide said Polito had no conflict of interest because neither she nor her family “received any benefits whatsoever’’ from her actions.

“Karyn’s advocating for the interests of the town of Shrewsbury is not a conflict of interest, and Karyn has and always will place the interests of her constituents over her own,’’ a spokesman, Frederick Van Magness, said in a statement.

Polito’s involvement in getting CenTech Boulevard built was at least the second time in the past decade that she took action as a state lawmaker involving property near that owned by her family. In 2002, she filed a bill that allowed the town of Shrewsbury to buy land on the opposite side of her family’s industrial park. While she was permitted to sponsor the bill, she should have filed a written disclosure detailing her family’s ownership of nearby property, ethics rules say. No such disclosure was on file with either the Ethics Commission or the House clerk.

Nor has Polito detailed her role in multiple family development companies on annual financial disclosure reports, as required of all elected officials by the Ethics Commission. Polito has disclosed her position as an employee and shareholder of Polito Development Corp., but not her role in three other entities.

Polito is manager of two limited-liability companies that own property in the industrial park, Hills Farm Development and Bull Farm Development, according to real estate and corporate records. In addition, she is manager of Candy Mansion LLC, which owns the property where Shrewsbury landmark Hebert Candy Mansion sits. Polito’s father, Francis, bought the property for $3.1 million at auction six months before CenTech Boulevard opened, in October 2006. At the time, her father said he hoped to develop the rest of the 9.2-acre site with retail and office space.

Polito’s spokesman, Van Magness, said she did not report her role in the three other family businesses because she believed they had merged and therefore needed to mention only one. She will correct the oversight, Van Magness said.

The Polito family’s industrial park, which is zoned for limited industrial use, is home to several businesses, including Northland Industrial Truck Co., Bay State All Star Cheer & Dance, and Freestyle Systems, a company that manufactures “weightless’’ hair dryers.

There is no evidence to date that she or her family has benefited financially from the new road. The assessed values of most of the parcels she and her family owns have dropped from last year, but the economy has depressed land values around the state; the total value of Shrewsbury property declined 4.2 percent from last year, Christopher Reidy, Shrewsbury’s principal assessor, said in March.

Reidy said yesterday that the construction of CenTech Boulevard had “stimulated interest’’ in that area of town.

“There are buyers around and people looking into it,’’ he said. “It’s a positive for activity. It’s a great location.’’

Polito aides contend that development of the area will actually bring competition to her family’s businesses.

Regardless, the state’s conflict-of-interest law is clear: Unless public officials can demonstrate they have no financial interest, they may not act on any measure affecting a neighbor’s property, whether the action stands to increase or even lower the value of their own property.

The law considers a neighboring property anything within 300 feet. CenTech Boulevard begins directly across Route 20, about 50 feet from the 68-acre Hills Farm Industrial Park owned by Polito Development Corp. It also abuts the Hebert Candy Mansion.

During the Romney administration, Polito helped secure $3.2 million in state money for CenTech Boulevard, which proponents said would improve access to public transportation and draw businesses to the relatively barren swath of land.

Construction of the 1.1-mile road has since been critical to the development of the area, taking place at the direction of the Worcester Business Development Corporation, said David Forsberg, the organization’s president. The corporation has developed CenTech Park, an office development that is home to State Street Bank, IDEXX Laboratories, and other tenants, says the corporation’s website.

Polito and other local legislators were “very, very helpful in representing their districts and helping us secure the funding from the Romney administration,’’ Forsberg said.

Indeed, Polito’s advocacy for CenTech Boulevard is well documented. In a 2008 biography distributed when she addressed the Society of Professional Communicators, Polito boasted that she secured the funds for the road.

She and former state senator Edward Augustus, a Democrat, also filed legislation that paved the way for the roadway to be built.

It allowed the Worcester Business Development Corporation to piece together the land it needed by swapping a tract it owned with another owned by the town. Romney, who attended the groundbreaking in 2004, signed the bill in August 2006.

In 2002, before she fought for CenTech Boulevard, Polito filed a bill that allowed for development of a huge property near her family’s industrial park on the other side from where the road was built. The law created the Shrewsbury Development Corporation, enabling the town to buy the so-called Allen property for an office park and torpedo plans to build 300 apartments.

The development was necessary, according to the bill, because the town’s “unused, underused, substandard, undeveloped, or underdeveloped areas’’ decrease “the value of private investments.’’

Since the bill became law, Polito’s family has bought two additional properties next to the former Allen property, which is now being marketed, as CenTech Park North, to office, research, manufacturing, and warehouse businesses.

In the e-mailed statements, Van Magness wrote that Polito filed the bill at the request of the town after a Town Meeting vote. “Neither Karyn nor Polito Development have any financial interest in the Allen Farm or the related Shrewsbury Development Corporation,’’ he said.

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.