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Town takes first look at Chester College purchase

Union Leader Correspondent

January 06. 2013 10:31PM
At an informal meeting on the future of the Chester College property this weekend, a majority of residents said they would like to see the town move forward with the purchase of the college. (ADAM SWIFT PHOTO)

CHESTER - About 60 residents turned out Saturday afternoon for an informal meeting on the future of the Chester College property, and by the end of the meeting, the vast majority of residents were in agreement that the town should take steps to purchase the nearly 70-acre property.

In addition to the board of selectmen, Chester College President Robert Baines and the college's attorney were in attendance to answer questions from the residents and take the pulse of how the town wants to move forward with handling the land near the center of town.

The college closed its doors in May, but the Board of Trustees has been paying the mortgage and owes about $2 million on the property, according to Baines. He said he expects the college to be able to make one more month's payment.

According to Baines, the trustees and the bank have been working with Norwood Realty to market the college for a use that would fit the atmosphere of the town. While there has been some interest in the property, Baines stated that there is no purchase and sale agreement.

Selectmen Chairman Stephen Landau noted that Chester College is the town's largest taxpayer, bringing nearly $57,000 into the town coffers last year. Of the more than one dozen residents who spoke during the meeting, the overwhelming sentiment was that the town should begin taking steps to look at the purchase of the property for future development.

The most likely scenario, according to Landau, would be a warrant article at the May Special Town Meeting asking if residents want the town to move forward with the purchase. According to Baines, the college owes Peoples United Bank slightly over $2 million on the property, which is assessed at about $2.5 million. Selectman Michael Weider noted that the property is located in the town's center and, if it is controlled by the town, could help shape how the town moves forward with its master planning process and how it wants the center of town developed.

"My feeling is that we would not look at this as the town owning it, but reserving it for the town's decision making," said Weider.

Landau noted that it was up to the residents of the town, not the selectmen, as to how the town proceeds with the property and how it is developed.

"If the town considers purchasing the property to control its destiny, we need to develop a vision," he said.

Some of the suggestions mentioned by residents included a mixed-use development and senior housing.

"I think we need to take a long, hard look at the potential of that property and if we want to control it," said former selectman Andrew Hadik.

If the town does not control the property, Hadik said anything from affordable housing to a subdivision that could compromise the character of the town could be built by developers.

During a straw poll near the end of the meeting, about 90 percent of those in attendance indicated they would like to see the town take some steps to move forward with the purchase of the Chester College property.

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