Friday, October 29, 1999
Article 2: Purchase of old Saint Irene land
Town officials, both elected and appointed, disagree substantially over Warrant Article 2 proposing acquisition of the 1.75-acre former Saint Irene Church site at 72 Bedford Road. Thus, voters can be expected to listen closely to the arguments presented at the November 2 Special Town Meeting before settling the issue with their votes. The purchase requires a two-thirds vote of approval at Town Meeting and majority at the November 9 special election which will allow exemption from the limits of Proposition 2-1/2.
A brief history of the site suggests reasons for the split. When Saint Irene Catholic Church was forced by space constraints and septic system problems to build a new sanctuary on East Street, the property was put under contract to a consortium that hoped to construct a 15-unit assisted living facility. However, because of "complications with the site," the developer Haydu and Lind, LLC backed out. Several other prospective buyers emerged, including North Middlesex Savings Bank which bought the property intending to build a bank and drive-up window there. They, too, were thwarted but this time by the failure of the 1999 Annual Town Meeting to approve the required change in zoning restrictions.
On September 14, following the release of minutes of an August 17 executive session, the board of selectmen announced that the bank had accepted an offer from the town to purchase the property for $245,000. They stated their belief that the town should take advantage of this opportunity to acquire property in the town center at a price below the bank's asking figure. Selectman Vivian Chaput later intimated that the cost might be offset by sale of a lot off East Riding Drive that is slated to be deeded to the town. No specific use was defined beyond "general municipal purposes," but other boards were invited to comment and propose desirable future uses.
The municipal land committee (MLC) was the first to react to the selectmen's request, and they reported positively after polling their members on possible uses. The initial suggestions included a park, swimming pool, parking for the library, a tie-in with the elderly housing complex on Church Street and limited affordable housing units. Chair Burt Rubenstein stressed that characteristics of the Bedford Road parcel, such as flat open space, proximity to the town center and location on a major thoroughfare, matched the MLC's long-range plans for town acquisitions.
The committee's recommendation was rejected the next evening by the finance committee whose members were chiefly concerned about added pressure on seriously strained town finances. They felt the selling price to be too high, especially since demolition, engineering and legal fees would bring the total cost up to $290,000. Members found this new expenditure unwarranted in view of the failure of either the selectmen or MLC to specify an immediate usage. They agreed with Phil Conti's belief that "financially, it doesn't make sense...to recommend that the town spend this money...knowing that any other town service would involve the same objectionstraffic,lights, safety," as the bank proposal for a branch on the site. The cost of the purchase, currently estimated at $290,000, would increase the tax rate by 5 cents for every $1,000 in real estate valuation ddeclining to 2 cents over the 20-year bond period, or about $17.50 for a $350,000 home. The estimated tax rate for FY00 is $17.64, a 12.9 percent increase over the FY99 rate of $15.62. (This increase will appear in the bills to be mailed after the Special Town Meeting.)
The finance committee's assessment was bolstered in a telephone conversation with recreation commission chair Carol Peters, who confirmed that RecCom has no interest in acquiring the site for either a community center or swimming pool. She reported that they considered the cost of development to be prohibitive, particularly in view of a state requirement that a well meet "public water supply" standards, if usage by more than 25 people on six or more days a year is contemplated.
Although the board of health has made no official recommendation, at their October 25 meeting, chair Steve Opolski made the following statement, "Based on preliminary conceptual design, we may be able to site a four-bedroom house meeting all state and local regulations. If local regulations do not apply, such as through a comprehensive permit, we may be able to site six bedrooms."
As for the planning board and conservation commission, both of which normally offer opinions on land acquisition matters, both have chosen to take a pass. Conservation commission chair Jo Rita Jordan commented that the Bedford Road property has "no particular conservation value," and thus does not fall within their area of responsibility unless a specific plan calls for work in a wetland zone. The subject of the Saint Irene purchase did not even appear on the planning board's October 25 agenda.
At the suggestion of two opponents, the Mosquito checked with building inspector Robert Koning who also happens to be part-owner of the post office next door. He confirmed worries about probable lot constraints due to questionable percolation tests, proximity to a wetland and the location of a well that supplies the post office. However, he is taking no position at this time. "I'm just waiting to hear what specific use or uses are recommended at Town Meeting," he said. "Then I'll make up my mind."
FinCom reporter Nancy Pierce contributed to this article.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito