Baker steps away from landmark debate on Savin Hill house
Aug. 19, 2013
(Updated on Wed., Aug. 21)— District 3 Councillor Frank Baker this week said he would recuse himself from an ongoing debate about whether a dilapidated home on Savin Hill should receive landmark status from a city commission. In an unusual step, Baker also asked that testimony he made before the Boston Landmarks Commission — in which he argued against a landmark designation for the property on Grampian Way— last week be “struck from the record.”
The move, along with a disclosure form filed with the city clerk’s office noting that his brother had previously made an attempt to purchase the property, came after a neighborhood activist raised questions about his comments to the commission at a City Hall hearing.
The unoccupied home, located at 24 Grampian Way diagonally across from Baker’s home, has a history: Built around 1871, it is associated with George Wright, a former baseball celebrity and sporting goods businessman, 19th century oil merchant John Kehew, and industrialist William Prescott Hunt. The home comes with a stable that is also in poor condition.
The Landmarks Commission held a hearing last Tuesday night, taking comments from those who support and oppose granting landmark status to the home, which is widely considered a neighborhood eyesore. The land is valued at $278,190 and the main building at $117,000.
Supporters, like the Dorchester Historical Society’s Earl Taylor, feel the home fits the landmark criteria and point to the commission’s own report on the house, which calls the home an “early example” of early 19th century suburban development of the Savin Hill area, “retaining its relatively large lot and early stable” and has associations with “several prominent figures of the late 19th and 20th centuries in a wide range of fields.”
But opponents of the landmark status, including Councillor Baker and the owners, the family of the late Raymond Tomasini, say the house will be harder to sell or develop if granted the status. The commission’s report notes, “A representative of the owners has been in touch with the Boston Landmarks Commission and has expressed concern about the impact of Landmarks designation on their ability to sell or otherwise modify the property.”
Doreen Miller, a neighborhood activist who backs landmark status for the home, raised concerns about Baker’s comments after the commission’s hearing, saying he had not disclosed that his brother, James, had made a bid for the property. “In your final decision on the property, Councillor Baker’s comments need to be weighed carefully in full light of this new background information,” she wrote in a letter to the commission, demanding that Baker recuse himself from the issue.
Late Thursday afternoon, after Reporter inquiries and Miller’s letter, Baker said he would file a disclosure form with the city clerk, adding that he was “not at liberty to talk about it.”
Disclosures to comply with the state’s conflict of interest law have to happen in advance of actions.
Baker deferred further questions to his brother James, adding that he has been advised by a City Hall attorney not to comment further. “This is all new territory for me,” he said.
Earlier on Thursday, James Baker called the parcel one of the area’s “premier” properties. The commission’s report notes the L-shaped parcel includes 30,775 square feet of land, overlooks Dorchester Bay and lies between I-93 and Morrissey Boulevard.
“Everyone is interested in it,” said Baker.
His brother said that he had put in an offer on the home in October 2012, but the family did not even acknowledge it, and he hasn’t spoken with them. He added that he is still interested in buying the property, but it was highly unlikely that he would get it.
The Tomasini family and their attorney did not respond to a request for comment. A member of the family has been lobbying councillors to oppose the landmark designation.
Matthew Cahill, the executive director of the Boston Finance Commission, an agency that plays a watchdog role, said Councillor Baker is doing the right thing by disclosing the conflict. “It’s definitely important to disclose on it. I’m glad he’s filing with the city clerk,” said Cahill.
In an interview on Friday, Cahill noted that, his brother’s bid aside, Frank Baker is a neighbor of the property, which is also a potential conflict of interest.
Asked whether Baker should recuse himself, Cahill deferred to the State Ethics Commission. The spokesman for the commission, David Giannotti, said that due to strict confidentiality restrictions imposed by statute, the commission cannot confirm or deny whether they have reviewed any matters or talk about specific situations.
In the disclosure filing dated Mon., Aug. 19, after the Reporter posted a story on its website, Baker noted that he did not have direct responsibility or any substantive authority over the Landmarks Commission. “I am aware, however, that any public statement or other action that I take may be interpreted as advocating not only for my own interest, but, in this case, for my brother’s financial benefit,” he wrote. He added that he would send a letter to the Landmarks Commission asking that his comments be withdrawn or struck from the official record.
Before the Landmarks Commission’s meeting on Aug. 13, Councillor Baker was contacted by a member of the Tomasini family who toured the property with him. “Following my tour of the property, I was also approached by several constituents who were concerned about the Landmarks Commission’s decision,” he wrote. “Several individuals asked me if I would testify in my capacity as a City Councillor in order to echo their concerns.”
Miller, who has worked to gather signatures in support of the historic designation for the property, reiterated that Councillor Baker should have recused himself at the beginning. “He should have said, ‘I have a conflict of interest and I won’t comment at this time,’” she told the Reporter. “Anyone with any kind of sensibility would know better.”
Written comments about the property can be submitted to the Commission until the end of this month.