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Windham education center gets tax break

WINDHAM - The owners of an emerging science and math education center off Gov. Dinsmore Road are eligible for a $44,000 tax abatement from last year following a lengthy discussion before the Windham Board of Selectmen Monday evening.

Town tax assessor Rex Norman said the three-parcel, 245-acre property, which is owned by the El-Hefni Technical Training Foundation, meets the criteria for tax breaks due to its nonprofit-educational status. Foundation officials hope to eventually build a teaching facility for various programs on the property, with plans expected to head before the Planning Board sometime next month. But in the meantime, Norman said, the site's natural spaces, including the many nature trails, fields, forests and garden areas, are already being used to help educators learn how to teach environmental studies.

"If they are able to demonstrated they're fully using this property, it could be eligible for 100 percent abatement," Norman told selectmen.

The building's construction site is not exempt. Norman said that section can't be yet be considered for educational purposes since the building doesn't yet exist.

According to Norman, El-Hefni staff began holding educational events on the property in fall 2011 in a limited capacity. By last April, the time spent on the property had increased considerably, Norman said.

Town Administrator David Sullivan said the site's trails and natural spaces now being used account for about 72 percent of the overall acreage. The building site accounts for about 29 acres.

Town officials said the foundation has owned the land since the 1980s and has been paying the town regular taxes until recently.

"They've been paying hundreds of thousands to the town of Windham over the years and now they're a nonprofit entity. It's possible they could qualify for a full exemption next year," Norman said, adding that the organization has to apply to the town each year to qualify for tax exemptions.

Wayne Morris, chairman of the Conservation Commission, said foundation officials posted "no trespassing" signs along the site's perimeter last year. Morris said the signs were likely posted due to safety concerns about strangers entering the property when children were present. But Norman said the site should be open to the public if it's a nonprofit entity.

"I mentioned to them they need to pull those signs down. Except for construction zones, the trails should all be open to the public," he said.

Once built, the foundation's Quarry Brook Outdoor Learning Center will feature solar power and other green technology that can also be used as teaching tools. A pond will also be revitalized.

Based on a program located in Palos Verdes, Calif., the learning center won't enroll full-time students but will instead assist area teachers in developing science programs for their own school curriculums. The center will also be open for school field trips from time to time.

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