CHESTER – Members of the planning board have updated the board of selectmen about progress made with consulting planning group the Better Future Alliance, contracted to aid with the vacated former Chester College of New England property.
While it was agreed at the Thursday, Feb. 27 meeting that the Alliance’s work had been beneficial, the planning board has decided to hold off for a time on further contracting.
The 70 acres in the center of town recently underwent a public auction, but only changed hands among banks.
After working with a potential buyer prior to People’s United Bank’s taking ownership of the property, members of the planning board agreed they were dealing with a property whose importance, location and layout were beyond what was contemplated in the town’s zoning codes. To make sure the town was adequately prepared to deal with potential developers, they agreed that the town should seek the expertise of professional planners.
Better Future Alliance fit that bill in part because the firm had previously worked with the town to help selectmen and voters decide whether purchasing the college land was a wise choice. Ultimately voters turned down a chance to buy the property.
But when the planning board received permission and funding for the hire from the selectmen, they were asked to come back with an update and accounting of what the planning group was working on.
In October of 2013, the selectmen agreed to authorize 20 hours of work from the planning firm before the planning board met with them again for authorization of additional hours. Better Future Alliance was hired at $85 an hour.
At the Feb. 27 meeting, planning chair Brian Sullivan, along with Andrew Hadik and Evan Sederquest, met with the selectmen.
Sullivan explained that the Better Future Alliance had been useful thus far in the process, setting up meetings among applicable town boards and attending meetings among the owners of the property, the marketer and the bank and speaking on behalf of the town.
Hadik sought to make it clear that the town has hired a planner “not to facilitate the sale of the property but to steer toward an outcome that would be beneficial to the town.” There has been some misunderstanding that the town had originally hired the group to help then potential developer, Peter Smith, purchase the property.
Hadik noted that Better Future Alliance had facilitated beneficial conceptual discussions about the future of the land, including discussions about the importance of the portion of the property that abuts North Pond Road, regarding stormwater runoff, wildlife habitat and vehicular traffic perspectives. It’s an area that many have agreed would make sense for the conservation commission to purchase and protect.
Members of the Better Future Alliance have also been working on creating draft zoning ordinances and amendments to help the planning and zoning boards better deal with the kinds of development that may come down the line with the property. As it stands now, the town is almost completely set up to handle single family home construction.
Other than single family homes, the property could be used for a similar institutional purpose to the college, but this could entail another not-for-profit organization that would likely not pay much in the way of property taxes.
The Alliance recently proposed ordinance changes that if put to the warrant in May, would aid the planning board this year, but with a fast approaching deadline to get amendments on the ballot, the planning board has decided to hold off. If necessary, a special town meeting could be called.
What voters may see this year is a warrant article asking for funding for a major Master Plan overhaul. While sections of the plan have been updated in recent years, the planning board is looking at a more comprehensive update, part of which would specify what residents would like to see for the center of town. The Better Future Alliance may be called in to help with that work.
Members of the board of selectmen agreed to keep funding available to the planning board for further work with the Better Future Alliance, but agreed that the planning board should visit periodically to give updates of such work.