CHESTER – Voters at Town Meeting decided to trust the future of the Chester College of New England property to their zoning ordinance and building regulations instead of purchasing the property. A $1.8 million bond to buy the parcel was the most expensive article on this year’s warrant. And while it arguably had the most impact on the future of Chester, when voters learned that they’d likely have to increase the bond amount to $2.6 million to even have a chance at purchasing it from the bank, the majority decided against buying.
The Better Future Alliance was hired by the board of selectmen to do a thorough review into the possibilities of the parcel and the group’s leader, Stuart Arnett, gave an in-depth presentation on the parcel before voters had their say. The selectmen, who were split on whether to go forward with the purchase, hired the Better Future Alliance after a special meeting on the property in January saw the bulk of attendees state their desire to purchase it and therefore control the destiny of the center of their town.
The land totals about 70 acres. On Saturday Arnett explained that they looked at the positive and negative aspects of the property, and then investigated how the town could enhance the positive and downplay the negative.
Positives included the land’s potential to expand the tax base, increase revenues, enhance local businesses, increase traffic safety and enhance town center aesthetics. One of the residents’ top concerns, as stated during the process, was the desire to keep the small New England village ambiance of their town center.
Potential negatives included losing the tax base, maintenance costs until a buyer could be found and different uses that could diminish the town center streetscape. A desire to keep the small town village atmosphere is featured prominently in the town’s foremost planning document, the Master Plan. The last time the document was updated, in 2006, enhancing that aesthetic through better ordinances and a stated desire to potentially rezone downtown were paramount.
Arnett explained that the town’s current rules don’t protect the look residents want in their town center as outlined in the Master Plan. He outlined possibilities for the property and current development interest, and explained how good planning and design could make the property a link for many parts of town through walking paths and other access.
Arnett added that the town had four options of varying involvement in the property. They ranged from doing nothing to buying the entire parcel. The easiest stance, he explained, was to do nothing with it, and trust to development rules. Chair of the board of selectman Steph Landau explained that before any discussion on the benefits of the property, voters first needed to decide if they wanted to raise the bond amount to $2.6 million. Otherwise the rest of the arguments were moot, he explained.
According to Landau the property was appraised at $1.7 million, prompting a $1.8 million offer to purchase by the town, and the resulting warrant article. This offer was rejected by the college’s attorney, however, and the board later found that the town needed to bring about $2.6 million to the table to compete. After the Better Future Alliance’s presentation, some voters began to argue about the merits of purchasing or not purchasing the property.
Selectman Mike Weider reminded voters that all the selectmen and the Better Future Alliance were doing was giving them options. Any specifics would come after the town decided to purchase the property, if that’s what was decided, he said.
Landau and Weider noted that while the town had rules regarding what could be built in town, if a developer desired to do something the town didn’t like or something that was not outlined in ordinance, the public could lose control over what occurred on the site. A few more questions on the possibilities for the property were asked before Chris Hadik made a motion to raise the bond price to $2.6 million.
That motion failed. While some voters wanted a hand count after the voice vote, moderator Michael Scott declined to do so, saying to him it clearly failed. This caused some ire among supporters of purchasing the land.
The article was then tabled and its reconsideration later in the meeting was restricted.