CHESTER – A public hearing at the board of selectmen’s April 18 meeting on the bond warrant article to potentially purchase the Chester College of New England property fielded some questions and discussion, but much of the proceedings were a formality before Town Meeting. Voters will decide at that time what to do with the more than 70 acres in the heart of their town.
The Tri-Town Times had reported previously that the bank had turned down an offer for the property from selectmen of $1.8 million, but chair Steph Landau corrected the information last week. The offer did not go to the bank, but to the attorney representing the college, who turned it down. According to Landau, some preliminary discussions with the bank over the figure were more positive.
The article can be amended at Town Meeting to change either the dollar figure or amount of land the town aims to purchase, said Landau. Currently the article asks for $1.8 million for approximately 70 acres. The first year of payment on the bond totals $31,050. It requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
All selectmen abstained on their vote to recommend the article. Selectman Rich LeBlanc explained the reasoning behind that decision by saying the public asked the board to investigate the property and to come back with that information and an opportunity to decide if the property was worth the cost and effort.
“It’s not our choice (whether to buy). We’re being responsible to what was requested of us,” said LeBlanc.
Previous selectmen discussions have indicated that not all board members agree about the property. Five members of the budget committee voted not to recommend and one abstained.
Budget committee member Chuck Heuer was one of the people to speak during public comment. He asked whether a plan would be laid out in detail on what the town can expect if it purchases the property. The town has contracted with the Better Future Alliance, led by Stuart Arnett, to investigate the property and ask for public input, and plans not only to have a presentation ready for Town Meeting but according to Landau, to hold another public information session prior to the meeting.
Landau, in response to questions from Heuer, said the process is still very liquid, and the hearing was held more to abide by state law on bond warrant articles than to present definite plans. Leroy Scott asked who would be in charge of overseeing the property, should the town buy it. Selectman Jack Cannon answered that as he understood it, the board of selectmen would oversee it, and it wasn’t necessarily a prospect he relished.
“It scares the heck out of me,” said Cannon, adding that there were many unknowns around the property that the town would be faced with, should they buy it. The hearing was not closed, but was continued for seven days to allow for any public input that may have been missed during the sparsely attended hearing.
Chester College of New England closed its doors last spring, and has been looking for a buyer for the property ever since. Following rumors about who might buy the property and what it would be used for, the selectmen called a meeting to get public input on the matter and set the record straight. That meeting was well attended, and nearly all who came spoke to their desire to purchase the parcel and thereby direct the future of a potentially town-changing piece of land.